Emergency Called as Galapagos Oil Spill Spreads

PUERTO BAQUERIZO MORENO, San Cristobal Island, Ecuador, January 24, 2001 (ENS) - A massive oil spill from the Ecuadorian tanker Jessica, grounded on a reef in the Galapagos Islands, now covers an area of 600 square kilometres (232 square miles) threatening the fragile marine environment of the world famous wildlife refuge.

The islands are home to giant tortoises, marine iguanas, lava gulls and many other species found nowhere else on Earth.

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(Photo by Sean Ohearn courtesy Sea Shepherd Society )
Ecuador has declared a national emergency in the area. Oil spill emergency response teams from Ecuadorian and American government agencies and environmental groups have rushed to the scene 500 miles west of the South American coast on the easternmost island in the Galapagos chain.

The Ecuadorian Military is in charge of the salvage operations. The Galapagos National Park is in charge of the cleanup. The Charles Darwin Research Station is providing scientific support to the national park.

Some beaches and wildlife have been affected, but winds Tuesday were pushing the oil away from the islands west and north into deeper waters.

Had the oil moved the other way, the shores of San Cristobal Island, where the ship foundered, would have been devastated, says Dr. Robert Bensted-Smith, director of the Charles Darwin Research Station.

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Sea lion pups on San Cristobal Island (Photo by Charlie Henry courtesy NOAA)
The Jessica was en route from the coastal city of Guayaquil to the port of Baquerizo when she hit a sand bar last Wednesday. The oil began leaking from the punctured hull on Friday. The 240,000 gallons of oil aboard was intended to supply tour boats that take visitors to view the wildlife which inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution on his visit to the islands in 1845.

A U.S. Coast Guard pollution response crew sent to the scene pumped between 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil out of two tanks aboard the grounded tanker into a barge Monday, but were forced to stop after conditions became too hazardous.

"Heavy swells pounded the the ship again today. The ship is still listing sharply to starboard and is badly damaged," said Commander Edwin Stanton Tuesday. He said the ship had "pivoted" 45 degrees under the pressure from the seas. This caused more damage to the hull and made pumping operations impossible.

Ecuadorian authorities are trying to determine if the ship can be stabilized or salvaged.

According to the Ecuadorian newspaper, "El Comercio," the Jessica strayed from the navigation channel clearly marked on sea charts and the captain was unaware that she was running into shallow water.

The oil spill worst case scenario is coming true," said Sea Shepherd president Paul Watson, who piloted the group's vessel Sirenian to the Galapagos from Seattle last month. "If a few animal colonies on any island in the Galapagos are hit hard enough by a disaster like this, it can mean the loss of entire species from the planet.

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Stricken tanker Jessica surrounded by oiled water (Photo by Charlie Henry courtesy NOAA)
"Like most countries in the world, Ecuador does not have the capacity to mount an emergency response to oil spills. We hope to see a stepped up international response in the next few days to meet the gravity of this emergency and save this United Nations World Heritage Site."

Yet, Dr. Bensted-Smith says the damage could have been worse. "The oil is being dispersed in an ever thinning pattern of ribbons, surface films and denser patches over a wide area of ocean, including the islands of Santa Fe and Santa Cruz. Intense sunshine has accelerated evaporation of the diesel. We therefore expect the impacts to be widely scattered over the coasts of the three islands but of low intensity," he said Tuesday.

BirdLife International today warned that the lava gull, the world's rarest gull species, is the bird most at risk from the Jessica oil spill because of the location of its colonies on San Cristobal, Espanola and Santa Cruz islands all the path of the oil slick.

A species found only in the Galapagos, the lava gull is one of five globally threatened bird species present on the islands and threatened by this spill. It qualifies for the World Conservation Union-IUCN Red List because of its small population which is estimated at 600 to 800 individual birds.

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Lava gull Larus fuliginosus (Photo courtesy Birds of the Galapagos)
"If a lava gull population decline was to occur as a result of the Jessica oil spill, this species would have to go onto the endangered list," said Dr. Michael Rands, director of BirdLife International.

"BirdLife wants governments and oil companies to avoid shipping hazardous cargo such as oil close to sensitive and important wildlife hotspots such as the Galapagos Islands, otherwise similar spills and accidents will inevitably occur at other important sites. Prevention is the only effective solution to this problem," said Dr. Rands.

Canada has answered a request for assistance from the government of Ecuador with a C$100,000 contribution to help local cleanup efforts.

"Canada's action today reflects our commitment to the global environment. We are in touch with Ecuador and will continue to monitor this environmental emergency," said David Anderson, minister of the environment.

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Emergency response crew members aboard the tanker Jessica (Photo by Sean Ohearn courtesy Sea Shepherd)
The funds will be channelled through the Charles Darwin Foundation to buy cages for sea birds and to provide monitoring services and care for recovering animals.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has sent an expert team to help with wildlife rescue. Sarah Scarth, head of IFAW's Emergency Relief team said, "The Galapagos are rightly considered one of the world's most precious and fragile habitats for a wide range of endangered species." The IFAW team will be working round-the-clock to deal with the number of animals that may be affected by this avoidable disaster," Scarth said.

BirdLife International plans to launch an initiative to promote better protection of such sites from hazardous shipping and will approach oil companies and governments to draw up a list of these sites," said Dr Rands.

"Candidate sites include Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) with breeding populations of threatened seabirds such as the Cape Verde Islands EBA, Socotra EBA, Madeira & Canary Islands EBA, the Falkland Islands EBA, Seychelles EBA, Mauritius EBA and the Bahamas EBA," he said.