The West Atlas drill rig began spewing 400 barrels of oil a day into the Timor Sea on August 21st. A month later, the Australian Marine Conservation Society says the statistics paint a picture of a major ecological disaster in the making for Australia’s marine environment.
The Timor Sea separates the island of Timor on the northwest from northern Australia at a width of 480 km (300 mi). The sea covers an area of 610,000 sq km (235,000 sq mi), and reaches a depth of 3,200 m (10,500 ft) in the Timor Trough in the north. It is globally important for its marine wildlife. The spill has occurred right in the middle of a marine ‘superhighway’ for whales, turtles and seabirds and is close to unspoilt reefs and coral atolls. The company’s own environmental plan lists as passing through the area:
- 4 endangered species – Loggerhead turtle, Pacific Ridley turtle, Abbott’s Booby and the Blue Whale and
- 8 vulnerable species listed – Green turtle, Hawksbill turtle, Flatback turtle, Lesser Noddy, Christmas Island Frigatebird, Humpback Whale, Leatherback turtle and the Whale shark.
Darren Kindleysides, Director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society said:
“This is the third largest oil spill in Australia’s history and the single largest from an oil platform in our waters. 1200 tonnes of black oil have already polluted the ocean with a slick that has covered 15,000 km2 of sea. The leak is still unplugged and will take another month to cap. This is a disaster that risks blowing out further in terms of its scale and impact on the ocean. Oil and wildlife just don’t mix. The reported numbers of dead and oiled seabirds are just the tip of the iceberg. For every animal recovered dead, tens to hundreds die unseen. The unfolding crisis for wildlife needs urgent attention”
As one commenter on Senator Rachel Siewert’s website pointed out, at the reported spill rate of half a million liters per day, every three weeks the volume equals the total spill of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
70,000 litres of dispersant have already been sprayed on this slick. As oil is dispersed into the water column, the effects on the ocean ecosystem and marine food chains can be significant and long-lived. Fisheries affected by major tanker spills in Europe and the U.S. remained closed for years afterwards.
The seas off Western Australia are becoming a major frontier for oil and gas development. As development continues to expand, there is increased risk of this sort of incident occurring again.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society is calling on the government to create more, large marine parks as havens from development for our precious marine wildlife.
“The West Atlas spill underlines the heavy burden oil and gas development can impose on our precious marine environment and the need for Government to shoulder the responsibility for protecting our seas from its impacts,” Kindleysides concluded.
Copyright © 2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC