A major spill of heavy crude oil from a wrecked freighter has coated an estimated 20,000 endangered penguins on a remote South Atlantic island chain, the local authorities and environmental groups said Tuesday.
More than 800 tons of fuel oil has leaked from the Maltese-registered ship, which ran aground on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, a British territory, early in the morning of March 16, local officials said. All 22 crew members of the M.S. Oliva were rescued.
“The scene at Nightingale is dreadful, as there is an oil slick encircling the island,” Trevor Glass, a local conservation officer, said in a statement.
The ship has broken in half and an additional 800 tons of fuel oil is believed to be leaking from the front section of the hull, said a spokeswoman with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a British-based conservation group monitoring the situation.
So far, only one salvage vessel has arrived from South Africa, and its spill response and bird rescue capabilities were described as limited. A second, better-equipped response ship is expected to depart for the area from South Africa on Thursday.
Conservation groups said the wreck could pose a different ecological threat to the chain as rats could have come ashore from the vessel, which was carrying 66,000 tons of soybeans from Brazil to Singapore. Several islands in the archipelago are rodent-free, and a rat infestation could potentially do more harm to bird life than any oiling, experts said.
The Tristan Da Cunha archipelago lies about 1,700 miles from the nearest land, in South Africa, making it the most remote inhabited island group in the world. The islands are rich in life and are home to about 200,000 penguins, including nearly half of the world’s population of northern rockhopper penguins, an endangered species whose population has plunged in recent decades for unknown reasons.
Jay Holcomb, the director emeritus of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, a bird conservation group that responds to oil spills, said in a posting on the group’s Web site that about 20,000 rockhopper penguins had been “confirmed oiled.” Images from the island showed large groups of penguins, which have distinctive spiky crests, coated in oil. “Many of the birds have been oiled for over a week, which limits their chances of survival,” Mr. Holcomb wrote.
The estimate of 20,000 was based on an early visual survey of the archipelago’s penguin habitat and may be adjusted, the center said. The extreme remoteness of the island chain poses a serious challenge for responders as there is no airport and oiled birds cannot be removed because of concern about transmission of diseases to which the birds have no resistance, Mr. Holcomb said.
The owner of the wrecked vessel could not be immediately identified. The authorities in Malta, where the ship is registered, did not respond to a request for information on Tuesday.
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