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OCEANS AND ECOLOGY

Spoiled by Oil

Our Oil Economy Stains the Most Remote Civilization on Earth

Endangered Rockhopper Penguin SOURCE: National Geographic/Andrew Evans An endangered Rockhopper Penguin coated in oil.

Until March 17 when the freighter Oliva ran aground and spilled approximately 1,500 tons of fuel oil onto the shores of Nightingale Island, the Tristan da Cunha archipelago had been best known by devout birders as one of the world’s primo pristine aviaries. Among the rest of the world population, however, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who even knew of these islands’ existence. Now, they’ve become the latest example of the global impact of our fossil fuel economy.

The islands, populated by 263 hardy souls, have no airport, and the sea voyage to reach them takes nearly a week from Cape Town, South Africa, roughly 1,500 miles to the east. They are the needle in the haystack that is the South Atlantic Ocean. So the chance that a freighter, not bound for the islands’ port, would somehow manage to run aground was as slim as the islands are tiny. And yet, there are now approximately 300,000 gallons of crude oil spoiling what had been one of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet. To put this event in perspective, recall the spill that occurred in San Francisco bay in 2007 when the cargo ship Cosco Busan collided with a bridge abutment, spilling approximately 58,000 gallons of its fuel oil—less than 20 percent of what was released on Nightingale Island.

Spills of this magnitude happen all too often. A 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office found that from 1990 to 2005 there were 51 oil spills from vessels in U.S. waters causing damages exceeding $1 million. The cost of the Cosco Busan spill has not yet been determined, but estimates place the amount in the neighborhood of $60 million.

The same report found that the three main factors affecting the cost of a spill are remoteness of location, the type of oil spilled, and the time of year the spill occurs. Clearly, locations don’t get more remote than Nightingale Island. And crude like the kind spilled in this case is described by the GAO’s report as likely to impose “severe environmental impacts” and harm “waterfowl and fur-bearing mammals through coating and ingestion.” Which brings us back to Nightingale’s reputation as an avian paradise. Tragically, this event also checked the timing box, as many of the birds that nest on the island are molting, meaning they’re spending more time on shore, preening their feathers—one of the behaviors that causes them to ingest oil.

Dr. David Guggenheim, commonly referred to as the “Ocean Doctor,” was at the midway point of his Cape to Cape Expedition and arrived at Nightingale Island the night before the spill. He and his crew were in position to jump directly into the recovery effort, and he has since returned to the U.S. to tell the story and plead his case for assistance. As of April 3, about 5,000 oiled birds had been transported to Tristan da Cunha from Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands, but many more are still waiting to be rescued.

The immediate concern about the situation at Nightingale Island is the effect the oil will have on the “uncountable” number of birds, including half the world’s population of the endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguin. There’s also the question of whether rats—frequent stowaways on cargo vessels and the proverbial first to leave a sinking ship—may have found their way from the hold to the shore. As a non-native species on Nightingale with no natural predators, rats could devastate the ecosystem if they manage to establish a population.

The bigger take-home lesson is that once again we have proven no spot on the planet, no matter how remote, is safe from the dangerous risks of our fossil fuel economy. As a culture, we have become inured to the constant occurrence of oil spills. On average, three times per year oil spilled from ships causes more than a million dollars in damage to our coastlines, but unless that accident happens in the harbor of one of the world’s most environmentally conscious cities, or the sheer magnitude of the spill exceeds anything we have ever experienced, no one bats an eye.

For the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha who proudly tout their existence “far from the madding crowd in the South Atlantic Ocean” and for the endangered seabirds of Nightingale Island, this spill is the tragedy of a lifetime. For the rest of us, it’s little more than business as usual.

National Geographic Photographer Andrew Evans arrived on Nightengale Island shortly after the spill occurred. Watch the video he put together:

Michael Conathan is the Director of Oceans Policy and Lee Hamil is an intern with CAP’s Energy Opportunity team.

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