Oil Spill Threatens Endangered Rockhopper Penguins

penguins-Tristan de Cunha Islands-oil spillMarch 22, 2011 – Nick Engelfried

Less than one year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an oil spill far away in the South Atlantic Ocean threatens to devastate the largest population of a highly vulnerable bird species.  Officials from the Tristan de Cunha Islands, a remote group of islands lying two-thirds of the way between Argentina and South Africa, say a cargo ship has broken up near the islands and toxic oil is encroaching on the habitat of endangered northern rockhopper penguins.  About half the world population of northern rockhoppers lives on Nightingale Island, the island closest to the sight of the spill.  If oil from the cargo ship cannot be contained, thousands of penguins are likely to die.

Compared to last year’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Nightingale Island spill is relatively tiny.  However an oil spill doesn’t have to be huge to have a devastating impact on wildlife and local economies.  Because the Tristan de Cunha Islands are one of the most remote island groups in the world, cleaning up the spill will be exceptionally difficult.  Conservationists warn that because there is no well-established bird rescue center on the islands, many penguins and other birds are likely to die before they can be helped. 

Penguin expert and researcher Dyan deNapoli has been posting about what the oil spill means for rockhopper penguins as reports have come in from Nightingale Island.  “There will undoubtedly be tens of thousands of penguins, as well as thousands of other seabirds, oiled in this spill,” deNapoli wrote on Monday.  “Getting the necessary resources, as well as enough people to care for the birds out to these islands will prove to be a superhuman endeavor.”

On Tuesday about five hundred oil-covered birds had been rescued from the waters around Nightingale Island.  However saving them will be a complex business; there is no permanent freshwater supply on Nightingale Island, meaning birds must be transported to other islands for cleaning.  Thousands more penguins are likely to be impacted by the spill as oil coats the water around Nightingale Island.  Besides the northern rockhopper penguin, other endangered bird species like the speckled petrel could also be affected.

In addition to wildlife the oil spill threatens the economy of the Tristan de Cunha Islands.  Slightly fewer than three hundred people live on the island group, which is officially a colony of Britain.  The economy of the Tristan de Cunhas revolves around lobster fishing, and the fishery could be as severely damaged as the rockhopper penguin population by oil in the water.  It will be difficult for residents to look beyond the island group for employment, because normally the Tristan de Cunhas are linked to the rest of the world only by a boat that travels from the islands to Cape Town, South Africa nine times every year.

An effort is underway to bring in wildlife rescuers from South Africa, the mainland country closest to the Tristan de Cunhas.  Since there is no landing strip on the islands, rescuers will probably have to come by boat—a journey that takes several days.  By getting penguins and other affected birds help from outside the islands, conservationists hope that as many as possible can be saved.  However as deNapoli and others have noted, a rescue effort on the same scale as would have occurred in response to a oil spill in US waters is almost impossible at this point.  The spill off Nightingale Island in the Tristan de Cunhas will remain a stark example of how damaging oil spills in remote locations can be.

Photo source: “Debs” on Flickr

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