Apia Harbour spared from major oil spill, still at risk

21/09/2009 07:26

By Cherelle Jackson

APIA – The release of the Pacific Forum Line container ship from the reef at Apia harbour, did not just spare seawall joggers from an eye-sore, it also saved the reefs, and the Apia harbour from what would have been a major oil spill.
The container ship which frequents the local harbour from several Pacific ports, was lodged on the reef for four days as local boats tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the massive container vessel.
Finally the reef gave in and released the ship in last week, however sources say that there were punctures in the bottom of the vessel which could release oil into the Apia Harbour, for now however it is contained as it sits at the Apia wharf.
The release of the ship came as a relief to regional environmentalists who feared tremendous damage to the marine environment as a result of an oil spill.
The PFL container ship carries approximately 300 tonnes of oil for use and backup in it’s commercial journey around the Pacific.
Greenpeace Pacific told Environment Weekly that oil spills have varying impacts on not just marine life but those dependent on it.
“Oil spills have an immediate and obvious impact on animals which use the surface of the sea such as birds, crustaceans and as the ship is lodged onto a reef -- depending on the size of the spill -- this would result in the death of the coral and an increase in susceptibility to disease in coral that come into contact as a result of increased stress,” Duncan Williams of Greenpeace Pacific said.
Marine Pollution Officer of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) Mr. Anthony Talouli said the impact would have been severe.
“The effect of exposure from oil spills is in two ways: Physical (smothering mainly) and Chemical (Toxicity effects). The most toxic components of oil are the ones that are evaporated during initial exposure to the elements. Also important to note that marine environment can be affected by the clean up activity as well as in the case of Exxon Valdez. With Heavy Fuel Oil in this case, the main threat will be from the emulsification (mousse) smothering and the persistent residues of the oil.”
Talouli said that the marine environment most at risk are the plants and animals that come into contact with the contaminated sea surface (oil sleek).
“The animals involved are the ones that a habitual and territorial, birds that feed by diving and shoreline marine life. The ability of plants and animals to deal with oil spill exposure varies and would be viewed in relation to how the marine environment deals with other stresses posed by other pollutants. In short, it is very difficult to measure the effects of oil spills and to determine whether the environment has returned to its pre-spill state,” says Talouli.
Greenpeace says that in order to avoid such environmental disasters ships must comply with all International Maritime Organisation Conventions and relevant national maritime vessel safety regulations.
Williams said: “Recovery varies depending again on the extent of the spill but minimal spills can take corals at least 10 years to recover from, birds in particular are among the most obvious and serious victims. Once the oil is on the coast then there are impacts on the coastal and shoreline marine communities and any possible shallow water nursery areas.”
Williams says that experience from other oil spills from around the world illustrates that impacts can be long term dependent on the type of oil, the techniques used for mitigation and the type of ecosystem impacted.
Williams pointed to one of the most studied oil spills, the Exxon Valdez which ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska in March 1989.
“Some of the oil from that spill can still be found over 15 years later on some beaches in the Prince William Sound,” he said.
Meanwhile the PFL ship is now safely stowed at the Apia marina, this time with preventative measures in place to ensure that any oil spillage is contained.
Talouli of SPREP says they are assisting the Ministry of Transport in gauging the damage made to the reef as a result of four days the vessel lodged on the reef.