Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christmas Island shipwreck threatens endangered species

From (New Zealand): Christmas Island shipwreck threatens endangered species
An oil and phosphate spill from a sinking bulk carrier at Christmas Island off western Australia could be devastating for a number of endangered species, according to conservationists.

The largest fish on the planet, the whale shark, as well as 17 land crab species and at least two varieties of birds are at risk, Conservation Council of WA environmental science and policy coordinator Nic Dunlop said.

Crew members from the cargo ship jumped into the churning sea as the 100-metre ship ground against the port's rock walls. TV footage showed a gaping hole amidships. Reports today say the ship has split and sunk.

"January is a critical month in the annual cycle of things at Christmas Island," Dunlop, who used to live on Christmas Island, said.

He said the land crab usually returns to shore after spawning, but this year they will return to a coastline contaminated by oils and phosphate.

The Panamanian-badged MV Tycoon broke from its mooring on Sunday and rough conditions prevented authorities from stopping oil and phosphate leaking off the cargo ship as it broke up and started sinking yesterday. Fifteen crew were rescued.

TV cameras caught the 15 crew members jumping into the water, where they were pulled to safety by navy personnel and Australian Federal Police.

The Australian Maritime Safety Association has estimated about 102 tonnes of intermediate fuel oil, 11,000 litres of lubricant oil, 32 tonnes of diesel oil and approximately 260 tonnes of phosphate was onboard the vessel.

Poor weather has prevented the watchdog from assessing the extent of the leaks into the Indian Ocean.

The chemicals and phosphate had began pouring into the water surrounding the stricken vessel yesterday afternoon and started washing up onto Christmas Islands' beaches.

"The whale sharks come to Christmas Island specifically to feed on the land crab larvae and they could be ingesting contaminates in the process of foraging," Dunlop said.

"They are particularly at risk from this event."

Dr Dunlop said once the ship had smashed against seawall causing damage to its hull, there was not a lot that could have been done to stop the oil spill.

"The only hope that they had early on was to... take it deep into the water and sink it," he said.

"The swell was just starting when the vessel was wrecked and now it's gotten even bigger."

Dunlop said some "very serious" errors had been made leading up to spill, including allowing the ship to remain moored off the island overnight when approaching violent swells should have been apparent to authorities.
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AMSA marine environment manager, Toby Stone, said an marine casualty coordinator and pollution expert had flown over the area late yesterday afternoon but had not yet reported the extent of the spill.

The authority's immediate focus was on cleaning up the spill but the bad weather was hampering those efforts too.

"At the moment the conditions are so serious with this very heavy swelling sea conditions that we're not able to do anything like that at all," Stone said.

"The observers on the foreshore looking at the oil are saying that it is actually dispersing in this very rough weather."

The ship had been loading phosphate for three days before the mooring broke.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is expected to land on Christmas Island today to begin their investigation into the incident.

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