Tristan da Cunha Oil Spill – Six Years After

Today marks the 6th anniversary of one of the world’s most remote wildlife rescue operation on Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.

Tucked away in the South Atlantic Ocean, mid-way between South Africa and South America, and a little east of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, lies the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and nearby Gough Island, home to 85% of the global Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi population.

The archipelago comprises three main islands: Inaccessible, Nightingale and Tristan da Cunha itself, with Tristan being the only island with a permanent settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Nestled at the base of the volcano on the island’s north-west coast, the village is home to about 270 inhabitants – the Tristanians. Gough Island, 380 km south-southeast of the Tristan group, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (together with Inaccessible Island) and the only breeding site for this penguin south of the Subtropical front.

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Northern Rockhopper Penguin – photo by Antje Steinfurth

The penguin’s bobbing yellow hairdo and braying call is a familiar sight and sound for the Tristanians. Since people settled on Tristan in the early 19th century, the pinnamins, as the locals endearingly call their penguins, have played a key role in the island’s traditions. However, a 90% decline in the population since the 19th century, combined with the penguin’s small breeding range and vulnerability to land- and sea-based threats, meant that when the Northern Rockhopper was recognised as a full species in 2008, it was immediately listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Just three years later, the species’ precarious conservation status was driven home when the cargo ship MS Oliva ran aground off the north-western coast of Nightingale Island on 16 March 2011. Approximately 1500 tons of fuel and heavy crude oil escaped from the ship, encircling Nightingale and nearby Middle (locally called Alex) islands, breeding sites to almost half the world’s Northern Rockhopper population. Devastating reports of oiled wildlife and coastlines quickly made the international news. What followed, however, was one of the most remarkable wildlife rescue operations ever undertaken.

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MS Oliva aground off Nightingale Island on March 17, 2011 – photo by Kristine Hannon

Mission Pinnamin

Within hours of the spill, a small army of Tristanian volunteers orchestrated an ambitious rescue operation to try to save their penguins. Nightingale Island, where most of the penguins were caught in the oil, has no fresh water or facilities for cleaning penguins, posing a serious challenge to treating the oiled penguins on site. Penguins had to be transported to Tristan da Cunha, across 30 km of often tumultuous seas, for washing and rehabilitation. Hundreds of clean Rockhoppers were carefully corralled on Nightingale, Middle and Inaccessible to decrease the risk of them becoming exposed to the oil while oiled birds were captured and transferred by dinghy to the MV Edinburgh, a lobster fishing vessel operating in the archipelago that, overnight, was transformed into a penguin rescue hub. On 23 March the first fragile cargo of 473 penguins was brought to Tristan and taken to a makeshift rehabilitation centre set up by island’s Public Works Department.

One For All and All for One

Just about everyone on the island got involved in this operation. While the islanders’ heroic actions however were successful at averting the worst-case scenario of the spill, the price of living in splendid isolation is that help is a long way away. Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island are accessible only by ship, with the closest harbour being in Cape Town, South Africa. And when I say “closest”, it means 7 to 11 sailing days away. While the first salvage vessel left Cape Town one day after the MS Oliva ran aground with one seabird rehabilitation expert and enough stabilization supplies on board for the preliminary treatment of 500 penguins, the much-needed equipment to set up a full cleaning and rehabilitation centre only arrived 18 days after the catastrophe.

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Oiled Rockhopper Penguins on Nightingale Island – photo by Trevor Glass

Luckily, the oil spill happened at a time when most of the penguins had already moulted and left the colony for their winter-feeding areas, so the worst-case scenario was fortunately averted. Nonetheless, of the approximately 3700 oiled birds that were collected for rehabilitation, only 10% survived to be released. Probably many more penguins got trapped in the oil slick at sea and hence, these numbers underestimate the actual impact of the pollution.

Lessons Learnt?

Six years after the oil spill, the long-term effects of the oil spill on the population are still unknown. Given that the islands are the strongholds for the Northern Rockhopper this disaster, however raised serious concern as any changes in the islands’ population would have a substantial impact on the global status of this species.

This devastating event taught us once again that disasters can and do strike the most remote places and Tristan da Cunha, renowned as the most isolated human community on Earth, is remote by any standard. The 2011 MS Oliva oil spill highlighted the challenge of getting equipment and medication to the islands when it was critically needed.

The increasing number of ships passing close to the archipelago each year creates a growing risk of chronic oiling as well as further catastrophic spills. Having learnt the lesson, Estelle van der Merwe, a specialist in rehabilitating oiled wildlife, was appointed in 2014 by the Tristan da Cunha government to write an Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Plan for the islands that will enable the Tristanians to be prepared if a disaster should strike once again.

Next Steps

Even though the oil spill had nothing to do with past population declines nor might it be responsible for the fluctuations that followed, what the catastrophe did reveal and highlight in a most striking manner was how little is known about this Endangered species, and that basic but vital information on the species’ general ecology has been almost totally lacking.

It goes without saying that regular surveys carried out by the Tristan Conservation Department have been providing an important and valuable tool to estimate annual population sizes, but are of little help identifying and understanding factors that are driving population trends and dynamics, which is crucial for any decision-making and design of an adequate conservation programme. Hence, there has been a growing need for baseline data and long-term monitoring datasets.

As part of an effort to fill the gap, in 2015, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) partnered up with the Tristan Conservation Department, the British Antarctic Survey, the Zoological Society of Scotland and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to propose a comprehensive Rockhopper monitoring scheme to the UK Government’s “Darwin Plus” Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. In March 2016, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the oil spill, funding was awarded and Project Pinnamin was born.

For more information see http://www.rzss.org.uk/conservation/our-projects/project-search/field-work/project-pinnamin-conserving-northern-rockhopper-penguins-on-tristan-da-cunha/

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWritten by guest blog by Antje Steinfurth, Conservation Scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Cambridge, UK

 

Deja Vous all over again? Non merci

 

It was with great relief when I read on Monday that the cargo ship Modern Express was back under tow and headed away from land and imminent danger. The 538-foot car carrier with 300 tonnes of fuel and listing at 45 degrees as it drifted ever closer to the southern coast of France last weekend after it’s crew had been evacuated.iu

I learned of the Modern Express’s plight last week shortly after I read about Spain’s Supreme Court sentencing of the captain of the oil tanker Prestige to two years in prison for “recklessness” that resulting in catastrophic environmental damage” and the new threat could not help but bring back memories of my experience capturing and caring for oiled birds in Spain and later France in the days and weeks and following the disaster.

In November 2002, I was on the staff of International Bird Rescue (then IBRRC) and part of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Oiled Wildlife Team that worked under representatives of Xunta de Galicia managing the oiled bird center on a hill overlooking the city of Pontevedre. The wildlife response at that center, as well as other centers to the north as far as France and south into Portugal was truly an international effort. It included wildlife responders from organizations around Europe and around the world. Unsurprisingly one of those was my now boss, Dr. Mike Ziccardi, the Director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. At the time I was amazed at the rugged beauty of the coast of Galicia and the fishing villages all along it and at the devastation that the spill caused to animals and people.

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Prestige oil spill 2002 – kirikou.com

This week I could too easily imagine it all over again if the Modern Express hit the rocks and wondered how a wildlife response would place out if that nightmare should occur.

Regular readers of our blog will remember Mike’s December post about the international group the OWCN is part of which is currently working to develop a system the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS) to ensure capacity to rapidly respond to oiled wildlife anywhere in the world. There is still considerable work to be done to accomplish that goal but just the fact that those groups are working on a plan means that if once again the “unthinkable” happens and another Prestige or Erika or Treasure or Deepwater Horizon occurs, we can respond at least a little bit quicker or a little bit better. As you all know when it comes to oiled wildlife, especially in early February in the northern Atlantic, every minute and every trained person counts. Hopefully by the time the next big spill occurs, a global oiled wildlife system, whatever it looks like, will be operational and ready to roll. I am sure if Mike and OWCN have anything to say about it, it will.

  • Curt

International Efforts Paying Off!

I apologize in advance for a lengthy blog post, but it has been awhile since I have written last, and I have some great and exciting news to share on international efforts that the OWCN has been helping to move forward!

Over the past decade or so, as you might or might not know, the OWCN has been collaborating with most of the other larger wildlife response organizations in the world to develop a framework for a shared/mutually supportive international oiled wildlife readiness program. This effort has finally borne fruit this Fall, with the funding (by industry) of what is being called the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (or GOWRS), and I am happy to share the basis of this program with our local OWCN partners!

JIP copyAfter the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo spill of 2010, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) identified 19 areas that they felt required industry efforts to improve overall readiness and response (these recommendations can be found here). Initially, wildlife response was seen as a need, but could not be included in the initial efforts undertaken by a Joint Industry Project (or JIP) due to funding. Fortunately, a second round of funding was able to be found, and the GOWRS was officially launched as JIP20 in April of 2015.

The GOWRS is designed to be a two-year project which aims to involve leading oiled wildlife response organizations in a collaborative effort to:

  • Address the gap between oil spill response preparedness and wildlife response preparedness on a global scale and;
  • Develop the infrastructure for a future Tier 3 (or global) system for wildlife response, including:
    • Commonly agreed animal care principles for oiled wildlife response;
    • A standard operating procedure (SOP) for the collective mobilization of oiled wildlife response organizations;
    • A roadmap for the development of readiness systems (trainings, equipment and exercises) for the oil industry to ensure operational readiness for a Tier 3 wildlife response system; and
    • A governance structure that defines how the system is developed, operated, maintained and governed.

GOWRS_PeopleThe organizations that are helping move this project forward include: Aiuká (Brazil), Focus Wildlife (U.S.), International Bird Rescue (U.S.), UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) (U.S.), PRO Bird (Germany), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) (UK), SANCCOB (South Africa), Sea Alarm Foundation (Belgium), Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. (U.S.), Wildbase, Massey University (New Zealand), and Wildlife Rescue Centre Ostend (Belgium).

Currently, all of the partners are working hard (via Skype and e-mail methods) to generate the documents and procedures necessary to allow such an ambitious and far-reaching program to operate. As we move these methods forward, I hope to keep our OWCN Member Organizations better informed about our progress in this exciting effort!

There are other exciting National and International efforts that the UC Davis/OWCN staff are embarking upon to better help animals in need, but I will hold those for another blog, so stay tuned!

Mike

World Ocean’s Day is tomorrow

Today’s Ocean Promise: To educate three people about an ocean threat that concerns me, and challenge them to educate three more.

What worries you when you think about the future of our planet’s oceans?  Pollution?  Over-fishing?  Bycatch?  Global climate change?  This weekend, pledge to learn about one threat facing our oceans, and take the time to talk about it with three different people.  Then, challenge those three to spread the word to three more.  Need a place to start learning?  Check out this website on ocean protection from National Geographic.  Looking for an activity for tomorrow?  Find a World Ocean’s Day event near you.

– Emily

A promise for the otters

Today, the OWCN staff joined the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and UC Santa Cruz for an oil spill drill at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz.  We worked through a scenario in which sea otters were affected by an oil spill in Monterey Bay.

Today’s Ocean Promise, in honor of the sea otters: To keep my cat indoors, and to never flush kitty litter down the toilet.

Wondering what cat poop has to do with ocean pollution?  Check out this article on The Land-to-Sea Link on SeaOtters.com.  This newly launched website is a collaboration among many partners (including all the groups at the drill today) dedicated to “raising awareness about the critical role scientific research plays in the understanding and conservation of the southern sea otter.” – Emily

Calling all boaters

Today’s Ocean Promise: To boat CLEAN and GREEN in California.

Taking care of your recreational boat involves more than just making sure the engine runs smoothly and the cooler is stocked up with ice.  The California Coastal Commission’s clean boating program provides excellent tips to prevent oil pollution from small recreational boats.

– Fuel outboard engines on land whenever possible, and never top off the tank.

– Use funnels to fill portable tanks.

– Use absorbent pads to catch spills.

– Keep absorbent pads in the bilge to absorb oil and prevent these from being discharged by the pump.

– Call 1-800-CLEANUP for hazardous waste disposal locations near you.

These tips and much more information can be found at the California Coastal Commission’s website on clean boating.  Or, check out the information in this brochure.

Re-useable bags: Think beyond the grocery store!

Continuing our lead-up to World Ocean’s Day, I present today’s Ocean Promise:

To use a re-useable shopping bag EVERY time I shop.

Have a few re-useable bags stashed away in the house?  Drag them out, dust them off, and stock up your trunk (or bike-basket) so they’re always at hand.  If you’re already a devotee and have your re-useable bags at-the-ready in the grocery store checkout line, have you gone beyond the grocery store?  How about the drugstore?  The mall?  The dentist’s office? (You know you’re going to get a goodie-bag with floss and a toothbrush…why not come prepared to say “no thanks” to the plastic?)

– Emily