Oil Spill Threatens Galapagos

ByLeela Jacinto

Jan. 22, 2001 -- The rare Galapagos Penguin and some 5,000 species of plants and animals that live in the Galapagos Islands could be at risk from a massive fuel oil spill that has flooded 150,000 gallons of toxic fuel into local waters since Friday.

Experts say any imbalance in the food chain in one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems could seriously threaten plant and animal species that have evolved for thousands of years in isolation with little human intervention.

”All species, marine and coastal in the Galapagos Islands could be affected if there are changes in the food chain,” said Peter Kramer, World Wide Fund for Nature’s Network Relations Director, and former president of the Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands.

Ecuador, which has sovereignty over the islands, had earlier appealed for international help to contain the spillage. In an alarming account of the extent of the spill, Ecuadorean Environment Minister Rodolfo Rendon said the “environmental damage is extremely grave.”

He said surf pounding the Ecuadorean tanker Jessica, which ran aground Tuesday in a bay off San Cristobal Island, opened new fissures in its hull, speeding up the rate of the leak.

Environmental Ministry spokesman Mauro Cerbino had earlier said the Jessica went aground because the captain was navigating through shallow waters without a map.

The oil slick is believed to have affected a 117-square-mile area.

The Ecuadorean-registered vessel which was carrying 243,000 gallons of diesel when it ran aground, currently lies tilted sharply toward its left side about 550 yards off San Cristobal’s shores.

A minor spill began late Friday when a pipe in the ship’s machine room burst. But the serious contamination began early Saturday, when strong waves spread the diesel and bunker fuel aboard the Jessica.

Coast Guards on the Job

The team of U.S. experts, including 10 members of the U.S. Coast Guard’s pollution response National Strike Force, arrived in the Galapagos Islands late Sunday, said Dan Dewell, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman. They arrived with specialized oil spill equipment, such as inflatable oil containment barges, and high-capacity pumps to help remove remaining fuel from the ship’s storage tanks.

Each inflatable oil containment barge has a capacity to hold 26,000 gallons of the fuel pumped out of the ship until it can be offloaded later.

“The team will advise and help local officials in their efforts to control and contain the spill, which will include assistance to pump out the fuel, erect floating walls and offer advice on how to stabilize and salvage the ship,” Dewell said.

“The bottom line is once oil gets out of a ship, it is virtually impossible to remove or contain in on the open ocean,” said Commander Edwin Stanton of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Ecuadorian officials said slicks had reached nearby beaches and harmed at least 11 sea lions, which were expected to live. Some 20 birds, including blue-footed boobies, pelicans and albatrosses, were also affected.

Lasting Impact on Ecosystem

Environmentalists and conservation experts are closely monitoring the situation. The international conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned the spill could have “a deep and lasting impact” on the local ecosystem.

“About half a dozen sea lions are covered with oil,” said Kramer. “Once that happens to sea lions or birds, they are most likely to die and we might see dead animals floating on the waters later.”

While the spill has so far only affected the southern portion of the archipelago, Kramer warned that damages in the food chain in the region’s sensitive ecosystem could affect the extremely vulnerable Galapagos Penguin, the world’s smallest penguin species.

Experts were also keeping an eye on the weather and the tides. Galapagos National Park biologist Mauricio Velasquez said the current was also pushing the spill south, and that within days it could reach Espanola Island, where large colonies of sea lions and other marine animals congregate.

The long-term danger of the accident, said Velasquez, was that the fuel would sink to the ocean floor, destroying algae that is vital to the food chain.

The accident, according to Kramer, brings to light the importance of providing international support to conserve the resources on the Galapagos Island.

“To my mind the Ecuadorian government has reacted responsibly to the situation, but you have a case where a relatively poor country is trying to manage one of the world’s greatest biological treasures,” said Kramer. “Ecuador needs worldwide support.”

About 60,000 tourists visit the islands annually.

Particularly Sensitive Sea Area

The WWF has also called for limits to shipping in the area. “WWF believes that it is crucial for the Ecuadorian government and the international shipping community to consider designating the waters around these islands as a particularly sensitive sea area,” said Sian Pullen, WWF’s International Shipping Expert.

“Such measures would help to ensure a much higher level of protection for this unique area of the world.”

Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) are internationally designated areas recognized by the shipping community, as areas of the seas and oceans that need special protection because of their ecological, economic or cultural or scientific significance.

While shipping cannot be barred from the region due to access reasons, Pullen called for a variety of measures to reduce or eliminate environmental risks including having local pilots lead ships through the area.

While Ecuadorean President Gustavo Noboa has demanded a “detailed report” on the cause of the accident, police on San Cristobal said no charges had been filed againstthe ship’s captain, Tarquino Arevalo, who remained on the island Sunday, or against his company, Acotramar, which owns the ship.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.