The mammoth clean-up task has begun across Port Stephens as debris from shipping containers lost overboard on the weekend begins to resurface.
In heavy seas on Friday, 83 shipping containers went overboard from the YM Efficiency – a Libyan-registered container ship on its way from Taiwan to Port Botany.
Debris has littered the coast at several locations including Jimmys Beach inside Port Stephens, Rocky Point near Anna Bay and Fingal Head.
Everything from plastic, nappies and toilet-paper packaging, to thousands of food wrappers and clocks have washed up on local beaches.
Residents started their own clean-up efforts over the weekend, but the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and NSW Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) have since stepped in to lead the recovery efforts.
“The NSW Environment Protection Authority will work with AMSA, RMS and the local councils to ensure clean-up of all material occurs,” NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said.
“AMSA has engaged contractors to recover the containers, their contents and clean up any waste material washed ashore.”
AMSA will then seek to recover costs of clean-up from the ship owner.
Port Stephens Council has thanked the community for getting in and cleaning up their local beaches in the wake of the environmental disaster.
“We want to thank all of the volunteers who have cleaned up rubbish on our beaches,” a council statement said.
“We now ask the public to not put themselves at risk - stay clear of any debris and containers, and instead report to NSW Maritime.
“We will continue to monitor the situation and clean up rubbish as needed.”
Containers have been located at Yacaaba Headland and one near Shag Rock, up from Jimmys Beach.
Roads and Maritime Services director Angus Mitchell told Fairfax Media containers have also been sighted about one kilometre offshore from Hawks Nest, near Cabbage Tree Island. He said the clean-up was the agency’s main priority.
“There are currently 20 people on the ground at Bennetts and Jimmys beaches, where the majority of material debris is washing up, with the capacity to increase this number to 100 people, dependent on ongoing aerial sightings,” he said.
“A number of bins are located at the 4WD access point at Bennetts Beach and a further delivery of skips was made to Jimmys Beach earlier today.
“At Bennetts Beach – five skip bins of rubbish have already been removed, including car bumper bars, printer cartridges, wooden bowls, lollies, chips, cookies, packaged drinks and analogue clocks from an insulated container.”
Mr Mitchell said while it is fantastic the local community has been getting involved and volunteering to help remove debris from the shoreline, it is not encouraged for safety and environmental reasons.
“This continuing environmental pollution and recovery effort is our highest priority and we will continue to provide updates to the community,” Mr Mitchell said.
On the weekend locals and tourists pitched in despite the weekend’s wet conditions to collect and bag plastic items washed up.
Tim Meharg, chairman of the Shoal Bay Community Association said visitors from Spain, Tasmania, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle joined local volunteers at Zenith beach to collect plastic jars, food packets, clocks and other assorted debris.
The rubbish was placed in plastic bags, carried to the car park and stacked near a council bin for collection.
"I daresay more will be washed up,” Mr Meharg said.
“We couldn’t wait for an official clean-up because a lot of this stuff could finish up in the gullet of fish mistaking it for food.
“The more collected earlier the better."
Chairman of the Marine Parks Association, Frank Future, echoed this sentiment on Monday.
He said the local community could not wait for the ship’s operator to deal with the recovery and removal of the lost cargo.
“These things take an enormous amount of time and by then it might be months, even years,” he said.
“It will be the community who will rally to clean it up.”
Mr Future said the majority of debris washed ashore so far was plastic, which posed two major issues for the local waterways.
These plastics pose a risk to marine life, such as the local turtle population. Turtles often mistake plastic for jellyfish, a main food source, and ingest the pollutant.
The debris also poses a risk to boaters and commercial operators. Just two months ago one of Mr Future’s commercial vessels lost a $30,000 motor when a plastic bag was sucked into the engine.
“Plastic in the water has become one of the major nightmares for commercial operators and it’s not good for the environment,” he said.
“I suspect over the next week to a month, other containers will wash ashore and who knows what is in them.”
The risk to marine life has also prompted Greens NSW marine spokesman Justin Field to call for the state government to hold the owners of the ship, YM Efficiency, to account.
“The loss of 80 shipping containers into the ocean may have been an accident but the NSW Government has to ensure immediate action to reduce the risk to people and the environment,” he said.
“The community is already stepping up but now it’s time for the government and the company to fast-track the clean-up.
“It’s unacceptable that massive quantities of plastic and other goods lost overboard have been left to pollute our oceans. We know plastic is particularly damaging to marine life, killing and injuring sea birds, whales, dolphins and turtles.”
The EPA will meet with affected councils, AMSA, and the clean-up contractors to ensure the impacts of the incident are minimised and all waste is removed.
The ship, YM Efficiency, is now off Gerroa on the South Coast.
Hourly warnings are being made to ensure ship operators are aware of the potential danger of the containers, which would not be visible from the waterline.
Drift modelling is being used to predict where the debris – which is mixed but has been confirmed as non-hazardous - is likely to wash up, between Newcastle and Port Stephens.
The containers pose a significant navigational hazard out at sea.
Members of the public are been asked to stay clear of any debris and containers and report to the NSW Maritime Info Line 13 12 36.