3.3.6 Marine Rangers Project (Australia)

Marine Rangers Project (Australia)

Marine Rangers Protected Area

The Marine Rangers project began in 2000 in Australia’s Northern Territory at the request of local indigenous communities to address the issue of a large volume of debris washing up on their beaches and the entanglement of marine animals. With help from the World Wildlife Fund, and later from the regional government, a program to monitor and clean up marine debris by local residents was established. A comprehensive database is maintained and regular reports are presented to the communities. Participation in this project raised local residents’ awareness of their own role in creating waste that washed up on their beaches and increased the capacities of local people, who learned new skills through project implementation.

Mr. Shane Penny works on the Marine Rangers Project for the Department of Natural Resources, the Environment and the Arts.

Status and Contact Detail


Lead: Mr. Shane Penny Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts Brinkin, Northern Territory Australia shane.penny@nt.gov.au

Project time: 2000-2009

Project funding: the Northern Territory’s Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts (DNRETA)

Q1. What are the main goals and activities of the project?
The goal is to monitor and clean up marine debris washing up on the shores of Aboriginal communities located along the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory.

Q2. Who are the participants?
The participants are local community members, volunteers from Conservation Volunteers Australia, and employees from the Department of Natural Resources, the Environment, and the Arts. Previously, people from the World Wildlife Fund were also involved in on-the-ground operations.

Q3. Who initiated the project?  
Australia’s Northern Territory is a sparsely populated region of the country bordered by the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea, and   the Gulf of Carpenteria to the north. Indigenous peoples make up over 30% of the residents of the region, with some residing  in remote communities located along the coast accessible only by air, boat, or 4-wheel vehicle during the dry season. About 10 years ago, certain local community councils began to express concerns about a large volume of debris washing up onto their beaches, as well as the fate of sea turtles and other marine life that were getting entangled in nets. In addition to being a source of food for indigenous inhabitants, these animals were also considered sacred by the Native communities. The project was initiated by Aboriginal communities in the area, which are represented through local Land Councils.

Representatives from the communities reached out to the World Wildlife Fund for help and input on develop a monitoring program and ways to clean up the shoreline.

Q4. What are the locations and how were they selected?
The communities are self-selected. They realized they had a problem and then contacted outside organizations seeking help to design something. There are about seven communities regularly involved right now. There are several more who have participated more sporadically over the last several years. For awhile, the organizers were happy to take anyone on board. They would try to find them a bit of money to get them going and send someone out there to help them set things up.

Q5. How difficult was it to find funding and how long did it take?
For some communities, the Aboriginal Land Councils fund community projects. They get their money from the federal government and a bit from the state government. They initially teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund, which also contributed resources, to establish the program. But because of a change in the World Wildlife Fund’s policies, they’re no longer involved on the ground in the project. In 2006, the Northern Territory’s Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts (DNREA) took over from the WWF. The project received a three-year funding grant. This is now coming to an end, and the team was unsuccessful in getting more money, so now the project is looking for other ways to keep the monitoring going.

Q6. What are the relationships between the project researchers and the communities?
There have never been any tensions with communities. The only problems that have been faced have revolved around cultural issues. If there’s a ceremony going on in the community or if someone has passed away, then people are not around. Often there’s no advance notice, such that you can show up at a community to do some work and people just aren’t around or you can’t get access to areas that you want to survey. But generally people are really keen to help out and be involved. The project is trying to engage the community in some of its scientific work and trying to build capacity in communities for doing simple numerical tasks. A lot of these ranger groups don’t get a lot of exposure to doing these kinds of things, but the skills tend to be transferable across other projects. So when another project is started, the rangers can use those skills and develop further. The project attempts to get people involved and not be seen as government officers collecting data and disappearing.

Q7. What type of monitoring and what methods do you use?
The monitoring is done by local community members. In some cases they are volunteers. In other cases, they’re on a government works program. Also, the project recieve some help from Conservation Volunteers Australia. They work at three sites. In some cases school kids come out. It’s whoever is available.. A date is arranged and depending on how well-funded the community is and its infrastructure, vehicles are supplied. Sometimes other resources are needed, occasionally with the help of local mining operations. Then, they spend a couple of days combing the beach and then a couple of days sorting, counting, weighing. The monitoring generally happens during October and November, although it occurs at other times as well in certain locations.

Q8. How do you organize your data management?
The DNREA has developed a comprehensive Microsoft Access database to store the data from the Marine Rangers Project. People involved in recycling efforts often request information from the database about the weight of the plastics collected by the rangers, with the aim of making use of the debris. In addition, a copy of the data is left in the communities, as they own it. Electronic summaries from the office database are sent out as well. An annual summary is also compiled. Previously, these were quite technical documents, but the last couple of years they are turned into a visual-based document. There’s a problem with literacy and numeracy in these areas, so it’s important to make things accessible. Very good positive feedback was received from the first reports using this method.

Q9. Volunteers vs. paid staff and participants: how did you address this issue in your project?
The Marine Rangers Project is largely a volunteer-based system. Participants are not compensated, except for those who already get some compensation through the government works programs. They’re often assigned to do community work, and since there isn’t always something to do, they’re happy to participate when the debris monitoring starts. Food and water are provided when the monitoring is being conducted. And in some places operational expenses are paid. But a desire for financial compensation is not really an issue.

Sometimes the researchers do get a little bit of bunk information. One of the things that they had to deal with was problems identifying the marine debris. Many of the community participants had trouble reading the data sheet. When it was realized what the problem was, were added to them, so that people who had trouble reading could identify the debris without a problem. This worked well.

Also sometimes if there is a lot of debris, interest wanes pretty quickly, particularly if it’s very hot outside. To deal with this the workday is adjusted: work for 2-3 hours in the morning, then relax, and return to sorting in the afternoon. Sometimes it’s the cultural issues that are the hardest things to overcome. In some communities people are working to a different timescale. Some of the rangers have the attitude that they want to do the monitoring, but it happens when it happens. So it takes a lot of effort on the project part to coordinate them to get going.

Q11. What do you think is the main achievement of the project?
Gathering information about marine debris has helped communities identify where they’re coming from, and also look for solutions to the problem. Also, as a result of the Marine Rangers Project, some of the communities have started paying more attention to their beaches and taken more pride in them. One community in which the project did a survey didn’t realize that half of the debris washing up onto the shore was their own rubbish. Once they did, straight away signs went up all over beach “Do Not Litter”. They really got a sense of pride from their work, and a feeling that they’ve got control of the consequences.

Q12. What advice would you give to others who would like to develop a similar project?
Understanding the realities of the community is important. In this project’s experience, keeping the written text, when it came to training manuals, to a minimum was important. Lots of drawing and images for interpreting the task that needs to be undertaken was critical. Another thing had to do with how people were actually using the information being gathered. A lot of the data queries we got were from people wanting to recycle plastics. For them, weight, not numbers is the important thing. We were cataloguing a lot of information that wasn’t really necessary. Another thing to bear in mind is what happens when there are multiple Community based monitoring programs in one area. Another project that runs parallel with ours, the Ghost Nets program, which is more focused just on collecting nets off beach, also has a lot more money. Some of the communities try to weigh up the amount of money out project got versus the amount of work, compared to that offered by other programs that require less effort but bigger returns. There’s a certain competition. No one has said no to our work yet, but it’s something that people talk about over dinner when they are out in the field.

Q13. What future do you see for this project?
Unfortunately, it has just run out of funding. The proposal for the continuation was unsuccessful. Now the project team is deciding what to do. Some communities, probably about half, really want to keep going. So, it’s about figuring out where money would be coming from. One of the things that were done with the project is the creation of “net kits”, which are kept at local ranger stations. Local residents can effectively go out on their own and do surveys anytime they want. However, when it comes down to time and the amount of fuel needed for boats and vehicles, there are challenges. Some places are really well funded, whereas in other places their cars are falling apart. It’s much more difficult for these communities to keep things going without some outside support.



  • Organized a systematic monitoring and data gathering in very remote communities
  • Helped communities to find solution to their problems, while collecting data useful for others
  • Community participants are volunteers

Opportunities for Improvement

  • Increase level of literacy in the communities
  • Consistent and sufficient funding