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Fears for marine life after shipping containers topple into sea

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There are fears whales, dolphins and other marine life could be hurt as debris from 83 shipping containers continue to wash up on NSW beaches.

A mammoth clean-up is underway across NSW's north coast after a cargo ship lost 83 shipping containers, with fears debris could wash up on beaches for several months.

Libyan-registered ship the YM Efficiency was travelling from Taiwan to Sydney on Thursday when it hit rough seas about 30km off the coast of Port Stephens.

Debris including nappies, sanitary products and car parts toppled into the ocean, sparking a massive clean-up task that has shocked locals. 

Waste washed up on a beach around Port Stephens after about 80 containers fell off an international cargo ship.
Waste washed up on a beach around Port Stephens after about 80 containers fell off an international cargo ship.
AAP

Fears for marine life

There are fears whales, turtles, sharks, dolphins, seabirds and other marine life could be hurt by the rubbish.

Marine Parks Association chairman Frank Future told The Port Stephens Examiner that the community didn't have time to wait for the ship’s operator to deal with the recovery and removal process.

“These things take an enormous amount of time and by then it might be months, even years,” he warned.

“It will be the community who will rally to clean it up.”

Locals and volunteers have collected dozens of bags of debris following the spill.

Port Stephens EcoNetwork's Nigel Dique told AAP on Monday his team of volunteers had filled at least 20 large bags.

"There were broken clocks, bits of structural plastic material, lots of jars and food items packaged in plastic," Mr Dique said.

"I don't know what else was in these containers, if there was anything toxic, but certainly turtles and whales and large marine creatures think they are food and swallow the stuff."

A shipping container washed up in the aftermath.
A shipping container washed up in the aftermath.
NSW Maritime

Waste washed up on a beach around Port Stephens.
Waste washed up on a beach around Port Stephens.
AAP

What has washed up?

So far containers have been found at Yacaaba Headland, Shag Rock (near Jimmys Beach) and Hawks Nest, according to reports.

About 30 volunteers, including Julie Sims from Hawks Nest, found car parts, drinks, sanitary items and other plastics along the stretch of Jimmys Beach.

"It goes on and on and on - it is just plastic, plastic, plastic," Ms Sims told AAP.

Roads and Maritime Services Director Angus Mitchell told Fairfax the majority of the debris was washing up at Bennetts and Jimmys Beaches and skip bins had been placed at a number of 4WD access points to assist with the clean-up.

While Mr Mitchell warned the community against getting involved with the clean-up due to safety issues, the chairman of the Shoal Bay Community Association said many felt they couldn’t wait for an official clean-up to start.

“A lot of this stuff could finish up in the gullet of a fish mistaking it for food,” Tim Meharg told The Examiner.

Port Stephens Council has thanked the community for helping with the clean-up but warned against putting themselves in danger for the cause. 

“We want to thank all volunteers who have cleaned up rubbish on our beaches. We now ask the public to not put themselves at risk – stay clear of any debris and containers, and instead report to NSW Maritime,” the council wrote in a statement.

The NSW Greens warned plastic is a particular threat to marine life in the area. 

It has called on the state government to fast-track the clean-up to prevent further damage.

"The NSW coastline is a very busy maritime route, we should have excellent emergency response protocols but it looks like they have either failed or are grossly inadequate," Greens marine spokesman Justin Field said in a statement.

Debris have been washing up in the Port Stephens area since Thursday.
Debris have been washing up in the Port Stephens area since Thursday.
NSW Maritime

Government to pursue clean-up costs

NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Roads and Maritime Services and the state's Environment Protection Agency were working with local councils to ensure all material was cleaned up.

The government says it will t tory recoup the cost of the clean-up from the ship's owner. It’s understood no charges against the owner are being considered at this stage.

The ship's insurer has employed local company Varley to put skip bins out for residents to dispose collected rubbish and use a helicopter to find the debris floating at sea, local MP Kate Washington told AAP.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the incident, the ship is currently off the coast of NSW near Gerroa. Poor weather meant it was unsafe for it to dock on the weekend.

Hourly warnings are being made to make sure ship operators are aware of the potential danger of the lost containers, which pose a significant navigational hazard.

The public can report debris or containers to NSW Maritime on 13 12 36.

Additional reporting by AAP.

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