Heidi Tait


7th June, 2022

Tangaroa Blue: Using data to keep our beaches clean

World Oceans Day offers us a chance to celebrate Australia’s stunning ocean, as well as those seeking to preserve it. Take Heidi Tait’s not-for-profit, Tangaroa Blue Foundation, for example.

Heidi Tait fondly recalls days working full-time as a diving instructor in Western Australia’s Margaret River region.

“My connection to the ocean was clear. I made my living out of the ocean and I spent my leisure time there too.”

But as she spent more time by the beach, Heidi realised underneath the beautiful surface was an ecosystem under threat.

“I became concerned when I started seeing rubbish washing up all the time,” Heidi says. “I’d go for a run or hike and come back with armfuls of it.

“Councils spend millions of dollars every year in maintaining urban beaches, so people don’t see it as a big issue.

“So, the question was: why is this stuff here and what do we have to change to stop it?”

The answer was Tangaroa Blue, a not-for-profit Heidi founded in 2004 to track waste to the source by collecting and analysing beach debris data.

Inspiring – and relying on – a volunteer network

Tangaroa, the god of the ocean in Polynesian mythology, created a law protecting the ocean that Tangaroa Blue continues to embody today: “If you look after me, then I will look after you.”

Heidi first applied Tangaroa’s law along Western Australia’s ‘Cape to cape’ – stunning coastline that stretches for 150 kilometres between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. With her was a crew of locals looking to make a difference of their own.

“I managed to get a bit of traction with the community and about 30 beaches were adopted.

“Around 100 volunteers went out and collected rubbish from the beaches and recorded what they found.

Tangaroa Blue volunteers
Heidi leads a group of volunteers on a mission to save our environment from waste.

“Two weeks later we held a community workshop to look at the data.”

With local council members, volunteers, and divers attending, the expertise on offer was as diverse as the rubbish they collected. Then, as the community group sorted through the findings, some packing tape caught the eye of a commercial fisherman.

“He said it came from the rock lobster industry. It was clearly an issue around handling and disposal.”

Not wanting to waste a moment, Heidi engaged the rock lobster industry, the Department of Fisheries, and the Minister of Fisheries. And, after six years of lobbying, Heidi’s first source reduction project was a success.

But, more importantly, it set a precedent.

“That was proof of concept that citizen science data could be used if it’s robust enough to create legislative change.

“Now you can’t have packing tape on any recreational or commercial fishing vessel in the state.”

The importance of investing in innovation and the community

After moving to Queensland in 2007, Heidi had another win when government funding helped launch the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI) in 2013.

The success of AMDI, like many of Tangaroa Blue’s accomplishments, relied on the community.

“One of the volunteers at our very first workshop was a bit of a data geek. He took all my excel sheets and created the database that led to the first online database portal in 2011.

“We now have about 2000 organisations submitting data to the AMDI Database.”

This amounts to a staggering 21 million data points, making it not only the biggest databases of its kind in the southern hemisphere – but one of the biggest in the world.

“There’s over 742,500 volunteer hours from that network,” Heidi tells us.

“If you apply a $30.00 hourly rate, you’re looking at over $22 million the community has invested because they want to be part of this solution.

“Every part of the community has an environmental impact. It’s up to us if we make it negative or positive impact.”

How new data changes old ways of thinking

Tangaroa Blue’s next big project, “Let’s Strain the Drains”, involved six Port Phillip Bay councils installing over 120 stormwater drain traps across four different land-use types 2019.

“Traps were distributed across industrial areas, the CBD, shopping malls and public transport hubs, collecting litter and organic matter that is washed into the drains when it rains.”

Volunteers added debris data to the AMDI Database which was then used to implement eight local source reduction projects with the support of local councils.

And because the litter normally flowed straight into the bay, the project also prevented 3.5 tonnes of litter and organic material entering Port Philip Bay.

All was going to plan until COVID hit. But because stormwater traps were considered essential, Heidi seized a one-in-a-million opportunity.

“We had this amazing data set of the impact COVID had on litter and what the first litter items to come back were after the lockdown eased.

“There was a 75 percent reduction in litter overall from when everyone was running around Christmas shopping and April when everybody was in full lockdown.”

Even after overseeing Tangaroa Blue for two decades, the experience proved to Heidi that data is always full of surprises.

Volunteers don’t just form your network – they help you build it

So, how do you create – and maintain – a thriving volunteer network? Heidi says it’s easier than you think.

“You need to give them a reason to hang around.

“If someone is part of a solution or a source reduction project, they can see firsthand the item they tackled is no longer in the waste stream.”

Collecting rubbish
You never know where you can find useful data, as Heidi discovered early in Tangaroa Blue’s journey.

Heidi knows the importance of volunteers because she’s personally seen how just one person can make all the difference.

After finding hundreds of Vietnamese-branded water bottles washed ashore in Cape York not long ago, Heidi suspected something was amiss.

One of Tangaroa Blue’s partners, the Department of Agriculture, then helped the information fall into the hands of the Australian Border Force.

“They called me two weeks later and asked if we could have a look at the database to see if there was anywhere else the brand had washed up.

“They used the data in ocean modelling and sent a Border Force vessel out to the middle of the Coral Sea and found an illegal fleet of fishing vessels from Vietnam.”

The big find offered tidy proof that while the odd bit of rubbish may feel like a drop in the ocean, we need both people and data to stop it at its source.

It’s also positive proof of what people can achieve when brought together in common purpose with the assistance of modern tech. And that’s something all organisations can aspire to, whether they’re for-profit or not.