22 March 2011

Environmental disaster threatens rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha

TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Disaster struck on 16 March when the cargo vessel HMS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic. An oil spill now threatens wildlife, including nearly half of the world's population of northern rockhopper penguins.

The fuel oil and cargo of 1,500 tonnes of heavy crude oil is already leaking into the sea. Oil now surrounds Nightingale Island and extends to a slick 8 miles offshore from the wreck. Hundreds of oiled penguins, classified as "endangered" on the on the IUCN Red List, have been seen coming ashore.

Trevor Glass, the Tristan Conservation Officer, has been working around the clock since the incident occurred early on Wednesday morning. He said, "The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island.

"The Tristan Conservation Team are doing all they can to clean up the penguins that are currently coming ashore. It is a disaster."

Oil is not the only threat from the vessel - there is also the risk of any rats onboard coming ashore and colonising the island. Nightingale Island is one of the few alien mammal-free islands in the Southern Ocean, and the arrival and establishment of rats would potentially place its internationally important seabird colonies in immense jeopardy.
Although the HMS Oliva was reported rat-free by its captain, the Tristan Conservation Department are not taking any chances and have already placed baited rodent traps on the shore on the north-west of the island where the bulk carrier has grounded.

Some hope is on the way: a salvage tug, Smit Amandla, is currently en-route from Cape Town and due to arrive at the island today. On board the tug is environmental specialist Estelle van der Merwe, who played a key role at SANCCOB at the time of the MV Treasure oil spill which affected South African seabirds. As the MS Oliva has already broken in two, it is no longer a salvage operation, and the Tristan authorities understand that the vessel’s operators and insurers are investigating chartering a second vessel to assist with cleaning up the pollution and oiled seabirds.

RSPB research biologist Richard Cuthbert, who has visited Nightingale Island, said, "The consequences of this wreck could be potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands.

"The Tristan da Cunha islands, especially Nightingale and adjacent Middle Island, hold million of nesting seabirds as well as four out of every ten of the world population of the globally endangered northern rockhopper penguin. Over 200,000 penguins are currently on the islands and these birds will be heavily impacted by leaking oil.

"If the vessel happens to be harbouring rats and they get ashore, then a twin environmental catastrophe could arise."

For the latest news on this environmental disaster, visit:
The Tristan da Cunha website: News MS Oliva
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels: News MS Oliva

UK penguins in peril as grounded ship threatens twin environmental disaster, 21 March 2011, RSPB
The Tristan da Cunha website: News MS Oliva: accessed 21 March 2011
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels: News MS Oliva: accessed 21 March 2011

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