Image for Oil spill catastrophe highlights Tassie dangers

NEWS of environmental catastrophe in Japan, has eclipsed another pollution event on the other side of the world that has implications for all island states, including Tasmania.

A major spill of heavy crude oil from a wrecked freighter is endangering a rare penguin species on a remote South Atlantic island chain. The spill also threatens the fishing and tourism industries that are vital to the entire Tristan Da Cunha archipelago, a British territory about 2700 kilometres west of South Africa.

The islands are rich in wildlife and are home to about 200,000 penguins, including nearly half of the world’s population of northern rockhopper penguins, an endangered species whose population has decreased by 90 per cent in recent decades for unknown reasons.

Late in month more than 800 tonnes of fuel oil leaked from a Maltese-registered ship which ran around on one of the islands making up the Tristan da Cunha chain, Nightingale Island. Although all 22 crew members of the M.S. Oliva were rescued as the bulk carrier broke up on the island’s rocks, oil leaking from the ship’s fuel tanks is now doing untold damage to the marine ecosystem.

A local conservation officer, Trevor Glass, has described the scene as ``dreadful’‘, with an oil slick encircling the entire Nightingale Island and running about 12 kilometres out to sea.

The slick of heavy crude oil has already coated an estimated 20,000 rockhopper penguins.

Two salvage rescue vessels has arrived at the islands from South Africa but their spill response and bird rescue capabilities are limited. Because there is no water on Nightingale Island, oiled birds are having to be ferried to the biggest island, Tristan da Cunha itself,  for treatment. Only a fraction of affected birds can be treated in this way.

Conservation groups told the New York Times the wreck could pose a different ecological threat to the chain as rats could have come ashore from the vessel, which was carrying 66,000 tonnes of soybeans from Brazil to Singapore. Several islands in the archipelago are rodent-free, and a rat infestation could potentially do more harm to bird life than any oiling, experts said.

The Edinburgh of the Southern Seas township on Tristan da Cunha represents the remotest island community in the world and local officials are staggered that they could be affected by environmental catastrophe in such a way. The islanders never considred themselves to be on a major shipping route and an event of this nature and scale was never on their radar.

``Our islands promise calm and safety from the ills and pollution that plague the world. But even those distant problems have washed up on our pristine and distant shores,’’ said a local official.

Island communities are especially susceptible to environemental catastrophe because many of their wildlife species are contained to the islands themselves.

In Tasmania, the threat of oil spill is a constant source of concern to wildlife authorities seeking conservation of such species as the shy albatross, which only breeds on three islands off the Tasmanian coast, one in Bass Strait and two off the south of Tasmania.