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Archive: The "Treasure" Oil Spill, June 2000

Viewpoint from the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology

What lessons are to be learned from the Treasure oil spill?

The recent sinking of the Treasure off Cape Town has sparked a frenzy of activity and media interest. With the abatement of the immediate threat, it is appropriate now to reflect on some relevant issues.

Is the attention the African Penguin Spheniscus demersus has attracted, justified? Environmental ethics demand that we consider the plight of the penguin seriously. At the current rate of decline (numbers are less than 10% of what they were less than a century ago), this species may be extinct in the wild within the next 50 years. Oiling is known to be one of the most important factors responsible for this decline. Research shows that local populations do not recover the lost birds before another oiling catastrophe strikes. For the Apollo Sea spill, the estimated recovery period was 55 years, and that was only six years ago. Although numbers have paradoxically increased at Dassen and Robben islands recently, this has only been as a result of immigration from Dyer Island where numbers have collapsed in the last decade.

Our crisis response during recent spills has been outstanding, but we continue to lose thousands of healthy adult birds and their reproductive output with every event. This is unsustainable, and the frequency of spills clearly needs to be reduced. Sadly, the opposite appears more likely. Burgeoning industrial developments on the West Coast is increasing traffic to Saldanha Bay, and deep water ports are planned for Algoa Bay and underway at Luderitz, all important seabird breeding areas.

Initial estimates of the clean-up costs for the Treasure spill put it as high as R100 million. These estimates exclude lost tourism revenues, volunteer hours, and numerous costs to the environment, including the loss of threatened marine life. Under South African law the ship’s insurers are only obliged to pay about R54 million, so it seems likely that the substantial shortfall will have to be absorbed by the South African tax-payer. But only a full costing exercise will reveal how much we will be out of pocket, assuming any legal action to claim the shortfall either does not occur, or is unsuccessful.

Costing out spills will also act as a deterrent to future polluters, if the full costs of the event are transferred to the polluter (the "polluter pays" principle). A full costing will also empower us to restore the ecosystem to pre-oiling condition. Thus, for every threatened animal killed in a spill, the polluter could pay for restoring an equivalent animal to the wild. For penguins, this might mean enhancing breeding habitat with artificial nest sites, bankrolling future seabird restoration projects, or even buying forage-fish quotas around affected breeding islands. Economic valuation techniques such as those used during the Prince William Sound Exxon Valdez spill (Alaska) may act as guidelines.

To some extent, we must also bear responsibility for this latest spill. The ship was known to be severely damaged and to present a pollution threat well before she sank. Without compromising our humanitarian responsibility to threatened mariners, our legislation and policy must be coherent and clear on reducing the risk to sensitive areas from oiling threats in future. Improved risk management also requires a long-term commitment to investing in the best equipment and techniques for spill containment and cleaning.

Public debate has focused on the resources being received by the penguins, when a myriad of local human tragedies unfold before us every day. It is important to realise that no large scale state-sponsored SANDF involvement in the penguin evacuation mission materialised. Furthermore, rather than a burden, penguins are actually a benefit to the region. Taken together, the Boulders and Robben Island colonies generate tens of millions of rands annually for the local economy from tourism. The Boulders could one day emulate the success of the penguin reserve at Phillip Island (Australia) where the annual benefit to the region is a staggering R400 million.

All leadership during the Treasure penguin operation has come from Marine and Coastal Management, the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town, Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, South African National Parks and SANCCOB, with assistance from NGOs like WWF-SA and IFAW and many corporate sponsors, and thousands of private volunteers. People have come out in their droves to help catch, feed and clean oiled birds. The hard work and commitment of these volunteers is laudable, and their efforts should not be construed as a lack of concern for other pressing social problems. The two are not mutually exclusive. Their efforts are an encouraging sign of peoples’ willingness to help in crisis situations which have defined objectives, and where the leadership is strong and committed.

Compiled by: Onno Huyser, Colleen Seymour & Peter Ryan