Marine toxicology and pollution in Tasmania

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Marine pollution in Tasmania is one of the priority areas of the Pollution Information Tasmania, a community group dedicated to investigating and documenting pollution in the state of Tasmania, Australia.[1]


The source and type of pollutants involved covers a wide field, such as run-off from farmland sprayed with pesticides, discharge from industrial sites and individual industries, and sewage discharge. The specific example of pollution from boat slipways and boatyards shows what can happen to estuarine and marine waters when the Government Departments abrogate their responsibility and do not enforce the relevant acts and regulations.

Pollution sources from Tasmanian Slipways

The source and type of pollutants involved covers a wide field, such as run-off from land sprayed with pesticides, discharge from industrial sites and individual industries, and sewage discharge. The specific example of pollution from boat slipways and boatyards shows what can happen to estuarine and marine waters when the Government Departments abrogate their responsibility and do not enforce their statutory legislation and regulations.

The Tasmanian State Government have been working on non-enforceable guidelines for the management of pollution sources associated with slipway's in Tasmania for the past 10 years. The Environment Division of the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (formally the Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment), which is the authority responsible for compiling these guidelines, stated that "it is widely recognised that boat repair and maintenance facilities have the potential to impact on the surrounding environment and cause environmental harm through many of their activities...".[2] Furthermore, the Environment Division suggested that "slipway operators are often unaware of the environmental risks posed by their practices and the waste that they generate, in particular the harm caused by toxic paint chips, paint residues and sludge and other liquid and solid wastes containing heavy metals, acids, oils hydrocarbon and marine pest species".[2]

The 270 slipway, boat repairs and maintenance facilities in Tasmania are known to have the potential to impact on the surrounding environment and cause environmental harm through many of their activities, such as hull cleaning, antifouling paint removal and re-painting.

The paint chips generated by these activities are toxic and can contain heavy metals (e.g. lead, zinc, copper, and arsenic), pesticides (tributyltin (TBT), diuron) and other toxic chemicals. TBT is known to be highly toxic to a wide range of non-target marine organisms, a strong endocrine disrupting chemical and is also very persistent.[3] Other contaminants released include acids, marine pests, metal corrosion and rust removers, degreasing agents, detergents, hydrocarbons etc.[see page 2 Item 1.3][2]The large commercial facilities are capable of generating up to 30,000 litres of waste water per day and 10 tons of toxic hazardous controlled waste a year, which goes directly into the marine/estuarine environment at those facilities that do not capture, contain and dispose of their slipway generated wastes in an environmentally responsible manner. Waste waters from slipways require considerable heavy metal filtration before being discharged into municipal sewer systems in order to prevent on-going pollution.[see page 15, Item 3.1.2][2]

In February 2000 the Tasmanian Government was pressured to take action to correct the situation. In an attempt to address some of the issues, it produced the Tasmanian Slipways Management Framework Project: Issues and Options Paper in 2002.[4]

Amongst the many submissions made, the Tasmanian Fishing Industry Council detailed its concerns and summarised two main points as:

• Despite the lack of environmental law enforcement in the slipway/vessel maintenance industry, there are already substantial and adequate State pollution control/environment protection laws enshrined in Tasmanian State Law (and have been for nearly a decade). The crisis facing the industry in Tasmania at present is due (in part) to a relaxed attitude on the part of authorities in the enforcement of these laws.

• To ensure the protection of the marine environment and the elimination of negative impacts from pollutants on other marine environment users… .[5]

Boat repairs and maintenance facilities generate waste that are included in the definition of ‘controlled waste’ and therefore must comply with the Tasmanian Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act - (EMPCA waste management) Regulations 2000. Controlled wastes include all wastes that have the potential to have a significant adverse impact on ambient marine, estuarine or fresh water quality.[see page 7, Item 3.1.2] [4]

The Environment Division (the fore-runner to the Tasmanian EPA) assessed the degree of TBT (used as an 'environmental footprint representing anti-fouling paints') and heavy metal contamination present in sediments adjacent to 26 boat repair and maintenance facilities during 2006-2007. All locations exceeded the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council Interim Sediment Quality Guidelines 'low trigger value' for TBT and 80% of the sites exceeded the 'high trigger value', often by a large margin, indicating significant contaminant levels.[6] The Break O’Day Catchment Risk Group also placed a submission in April 2008 calling for the precautionary approach and the current regulations to be implemented, policed and enforced as soon as possible.[7]

Finally in March 2009 the Environmental Guidelines for Boat Repairs and Maintenance were released.[8] However in May 2006 the Director Environmental Management, Warren Jones stated in writing that in the past the industry had been given three years to implement the guidelines outside of a regulatory framework. He also stated that the Environment Division was looking into regulatory options to help improve operating practices at Tasmanian slipways.[9] As of 29 September 2009 his Department cannot give a start or finish date for the 3 years (see above) because the matter is “under review”.

The Need for Surveys for Persistent Organic Pollutants in Tasmanian fish

In the aftermath to the detection of very high PCB levels in Tasmanian platypus in the late 1990’s, Swedish ecotoxicologist, Professpr Ander Sodergren called on the Tasmanian Government to undertake risk assessment surveys of wild-caught fish likely to be eaten by humans. In 1997 Professor Sodergren said “It is now very important to find out if fish contain these compounds, especially those going into human consumption”, he said.[10]

In 2004 the Tasmanian Government, after an inquiry from an investigative journalist working for Hobart’s Mercury newspaper released preliminary data on the monitoring of a selected organochlorine and PCB residues 5 started five years earlier.[11] North American ecotoxicologist, Dr David Carpenter criticised the methodology of their preliminary report citing concerns over limits of detection.[12] The Tasmanian Primary Industry & Water website referred to residues in the flesh of all trout and eels as “below the point of detection of 0.1 parts per million for PCBs” - i.e. below 100ng/g. Sampling occurred in the following catchments - Tamar, Derwent, Forth, Emu, Pipers, South Esk River, North Esk River, together with lakes Pieman, Pedder, Great Lake and Western Lakes.[13] The allowable concentration of PCBs in fish and fish products is 0.5 ppm [500ng/g wet weight] as defined by the Australian Food Standards Code; all PCB residues in fish flesh sample concentrations were therefore at least five times less than those allowable. A unspecified number of liver samples from widespread locations had detectable levels of PCBs, most were in the range 0.1 to 0.3 ppm [100-300 ng/g] with the maximum level being two samples with 0.6 ppm [600ng/g]. According to the Tasmanian government analysis this finding was “not unexpected as livers and some other organs typically concentrate such chemicals to a greater degree than flesh. These parts of fish are not generally consumed”.[13] The Minister for Primary Industry & Water in 2004, Mr Steve Kons issued a press release on the preliminary findings. “It was intended that the results of this survey would be written up for publication in a scientific journal along with other physical data on the fish (age, sex, condition etc), but other priorities in 2001 prevented the report being completed. However, in the interests of transparency, I have asked my Department to prepare a summary report of the survey results by the end of this week and this report will be publicly available through the DPIWE website on Monday [4 October 2004]”, he said.[14] [No findings have been published to date and the summary on the DPIWE website remains the publicly available reference.]

As recently as late August 009, the Tasmanian Seafood Industry Council raised their concerns about the pesticides and other agricultural chemicals entering various esturine waterways around Tasmania.[15] writing to the Minister responsible, David Llewellyn they cited the recorded chemical contamination impacting on oysters farmed in the Duck, Georges and Coal River estuaries. 'Tasmanian rivers and waterways are regularly contaminated ith toxic pesticidesc and herbicides, yet the Tasmanian Governmemt and Minister Llewellyn have done nothing to prevent ongoing contamination', Tasmanian Greens MP, Tim Morris said; David Llewellyn's response was that he would raise the matter with farmers.[15]

Heavy metals in Tasmanian marine fish

As recently as 2008 the Tasmanian Director of Public Health, Dr Rocoe Taylor issued a warning to fishers of the Derwent estuary near Tasmania's capital city, Hobart to avoid eating black bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri) because they contained mercury (Hg) levels 'three times over the the safe level for human consumption.[16] In releasing the results of the marine toxicology study, Dr Taylor said that elevated levels were also found in the commonly caught flathead (Platycephalus spp.) and 'sea-run trout' with sea mullet (Mugil cephalus) having 'significantly lower Hg levels'.

'There's a limit that our bodies can tolerate and so our advice is to aviod the bream altogether because it's verginbg on the side of too much risk. The other finfish species, preganabt women and young children should restrict themselves to just one fish meal a week caught from the Derwent [estuary] and all other adults [humans] can consume 2 to 3 meals a week and that would be quite safe', Dr Taylor said. The consumption of any shellfish from the Derwent estuary is not recommended.[16]

[To be continued]

Farmed salmon in Tasmania

Application of ecotoxicology methodologies to monitor to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in wild animals, including fish, is now being conducted as part of global surveillance initiatives.[17]

Such international research programs aim to track trends in the residues of important POPs, such as PCBs, Dioxins, OCs, PBDEs and furans, and become the basis for consumer awareness on health risks and a means of direct regional or country comparisons.

In the abovementioned international study, which did not include any sampling from Australia, the authors concluded: "Our data indicate that farmed salmon have significantly higher burdens than wild salmon and that farmed salmon from Europe are significantly more contaminated than farmed salmon from South and North America. Fish that is not contaminated is a healthy food, high in nutrients, such as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, that are known to have a variety of health effects. However, our study suggests that consumption of farmed salmon may result in exposure to a variety of persistent bioaccumulative contaminants with the potential for an elevation in attendant health risks. Although the risk/benefit is complicated, consumption of Atlantic salmon may pose risks that detract from the beneficial effects of fish consumption. This study demonstrates the importance of labelling salmon as 'farmed' and identifying the country of origin. Further studies of contaminated sources, particularly in feeds used for farmed carnivorous species such as salmon, are needed."[17]

High levels of total polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) congeners were found in a small sampling of Tasmanian farmed salmonids. Three fillet samples of sea-cage Tasmanian Atlantic salmon (11-34 ppb) and in one fillet from a farmed Rainbow Trout (8 ppb). The levels reported to be double the highest PBDEs residue levels detected in a recent study of Great Lakes salmon in North America.[18]

Persistent Organic Pollutants in a Tasmanian marine environment

Despite the widespread occurrence of persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs, dioxins and polybrominated phenolics (PBDEs & PBBs) and knowledge for their impact on ecological health, limited published information is available on their distribution in marine and esturine environments of the Tasmanian coastal region.[19] the presence of PCBs in many regional Tasmanian freshwater catchments as demonstrated by the presence of high PCB concentrations in the fatty tissues of platypus,Ornithorychnchus anatinus.[20]

PCBs discharged into acquatic environments adsorb onto particulate matter and are ultimately deposited into benthic sediments.[21] where certain PCB congeners remain available for re-suspension over long periods.[22]

A heavy industry site located in the Tamar estuary opening to Bass Strait was chosen to stdy the partitioning of 30 PCB congeners and several organochlorines including DDT, diedrin, endrin and lindane from sediments to two interactive species - a fish and a mollusc. The results were compared to residues at two non-industrial sites - at Port Sorell, another tidal estuary on Bass Strait and Coles Bay, Great Oyster Bay on Tasmania’s east coast.[19]

The highest concentration of total PCBs in sediment was detected at the Tamar River industrial site (2,681 ng/g DMB) at locations closest to stormwater runoff from the industrial complex; this compared to the highest recorded sediment at Great Oyster Bay of 5 ng/g DMB. Similarly sand flathead caught near the industrial site had PCBs levels ranging from 667-4,899 ng/g lipid (n=10) with only two fish recording a ΣPCB residues of less than 1000 ng/g lipid. In comparison the pristine locations flathead recorded ΣPCB residues of <1 ng/g lipid. The levels of total DDT ranged from 10-243 ng/g lipid at the industrial site, with non-metabolised p,p’-DDT detected in two of 10 fish suggesting to the authors[19] that relatively recent illegal use or disposal of this organchlorine had occurred. [Note; Tasmania phased out the use of DDT and other organochlorines between 1973 and 1987; this study took place in 1997.]

The filter-feeding Pacific oyster was collected from the industrial site and from another Tamar estuary site (Deviot) approximately 14 kilometers upstream. Total PCB concentrations were not statistically different - ranging from 1,499 to 8,339 ng/g lipid at the industrial site and 2,644 to 8,836 ng/g lipid at the upstream site. The oysters at both sites also recorded organochlorine residues (predominantly metabolites), however, the uptream site recorded a 4-fold increase.

The industrial site sediment samples definitely exceeded the Sediment Quality Guidelines for polychlorinatedbiphenyls based on the effect range medium of 180 ng/g DMB.[23] This suggests that in the late 1990’s toxic effects from accumulated PCBs were likely to be evident in the aquatic community in Tamar estuary.[19] The authors recognized that this survey was a significant assessment of the marine biota of the Tamar estuary and had implications for humans ‘exposed to organochlorines and PCBs through dietary intake [fish or shell fish consumption]'

Persistent Organic Pollutants in Tasmanian fish

In 2004 a leading toxicology expert, Dr David Carpenter from the University of Albany was highly critical of the Tasmanian Government report into man-made chemical residues in freshwater trout and eels. “When you don’t want to find contaminants one just uses a method which has a detection level which is so high that you can’t find what you know is present,” Dr Carpenter said.[12] Dr Carpenter was a co-author of world-wide survey of persistent organic pollutants in farmed salmon.[17] This research paper recommended people only eat one farmed salmon meal each month because of the high levels of man-made chemicals in European and North American aquacultured salmonids. The Tasmanian Government survey tested wild-caught trout and eels collected in 1999 and 2000 for PCBs, BHC [hexachlorocyclobenzene - γ isomer is lindane], DDT and Heptachlor and heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, lead, zinc and mercury (no data on fish size was provided). The findings of the "6400 analyses on over 330 samples" has never been published in a scientific journal and the brief summary was released under Freedom of Information laws. The study measured PCBs levels (at LOD of 0.1ppm) in liver and flesh at detection levels of 0.1-0.3 ppm with the highest recorded levels of 0.6 ppm.[24]

The release of the Suzuki Foundation research by Michael Easton in 2001 - Warnings from the Wild: The Price of salmon - highlighted that farmed salmon in the northern hemisphere had up to 10 times the levels of PCBs and dioxins in wild-caught salmon. Local Tasmanian aquaculture producers, whilst acknowledging that fish meal fed to farmed salmon was the source of the bioaccumulated chemicals in farmed fish, suggested that wild fish used in salmon pellets (mackerel, pilchards and sardines) were harvested at 'about one year old have not had the time to accumulate significant levels of the toxic pollutants'.[25]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. "Telling the Truth about Toxics in Tasmania", Tasmanian Times, August 2, 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Tasmanian Slipways Management Framework Issues and Options Paper, April 2004 [1][see page 2]
  3. Review of Sediment Sampling Program, October 2007 [2][see page 5]
  4. 4.0 4.1 Tasmanian Slipways Management Framework Project - DPIWE, 2002 [3]
  5. Tasmanian Fishing Industry Council submission. [4]
  6. Review of Sediment Sampling Program, October 2007 [5][see page 2]
  7. Break O’Day Catchment Risk Group submission to Marine Sediment Sampling Program [6]
  8. Environmental Guidelines for Boat Repairs and Maintenance (Department of Environment, Parks, Heritage and the Arts: Environment Division)[7]
  9. Letter from Director, Environmental Management, dated May 2009 [8], [9]
  10. Ian Pattie - Toxic threat to platypuses, The Examiner newspaper 22 December 1997, page 1-2
  11. Simon Bevilacqua - Tassie trout, eels get clean chemical rating, Sunday Tasmanian newspaper October 10, 2004, page 16
  12. 12.0 12.1 Simon Bevilacqua - Doubt over trout tests, Sunday Tasmanian newspaper October 17, 2004, page 9
  13. 13.0 13.1 PCB in Tasmanian water catchments - 2004 Tasmanian Department f Primary Industry & Water website
  14. Study shows Tassie fish cleanest in the world - Tasmanian Government media release 1 October 2004
  15. 15.0 15.1 Seafood chemical concerns, The Mercury newspaper, 28 August 2009
  16. 16.0 16.1 Derwent fish poison alert, The Mercury newspaper, 7 March 2008
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Ronald A. Hites, Jeffery A. Foran, David O. Carpenter, M. Coreen Hamilton, Barbara A. Knuth, Steven J. Schwager, "Global Assessment of organic contaminants in farmed salmon", Science, Volume 303, January 9, 2004, pages 226-229.
  18. R. Symons, D. Burniston, N. Piro, G. Stevenson and A. Yates, "A study of the presence of brominated flame retardants in Australian fauna", Organohalogen Compounds, Volume 66, 2004, pages 3959-3965.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 Mondon, J.A., Nowak, B.A. and Sondergren, A. Persistent Organic Pollutants in oysters Crassostrea gigas and sand flathead Platycephalus bassensis from Tasmanian estuarine and coastal waters. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2001 Volume 42(2), pages 157-161
  20. B.L. Munday, N.J. Stewart and A. Sodergren, Accumulation of persistent organic pollutants in Tasmanian platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus),Environmental Pollution, Volume 120, 2002, pages 233-237.
  21. Kalmaz, E.M. and Kalmaz, G.D. Transport, distribution and toxic effects of polychlorinated biphenyls on ecosystems: review. Ecological Modelling 1979; Volume 6, pages 223-251
  22. Swain, W.R. An overview of the scientific basis for certain with polychlorinated biphenyls in the Great Lake, In: PCBs: Humans and Environmental Hazards. D'Itri, F.M. and Kamrin, M.A. (editors) pages 11-48. Butterworth Publishers, Woburn, UK
  23. Long, E.R., MacDonald, D.D., Smith, S.L. and Calder, F.D. Incidence of adverse effects within ranges of chemical concentrations in marine and estuarine sediments. Environmental Management 1995; Volume 19, pages 81-97
  24. Study shows Tassie fish cleanest in the world - Government Media Statement 1 October 2004
  25. Tassie export hope in salmon toxin scare - Harriet Binet Mercury newspaper January 6, 2001

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