Oil Spills in Lebanon and the Philippines Highlight Spill Threat to MPAs

MPA News

Marine protected areas in Lebanon and the Philippines were hit by major oil spills in the months of July and August, with clean-up crews working into September and likely beyond to remove oil from blackened beaches and other habitats. The events highlight the threat posed by spill emergencies to MPAs and surrounding ecosystems, and serve as a reminder to MPA managers of the need for response planning.

In Lebanon, the 13-15 July bombing by Israel of a power plant near Beirut caused up to 5 million gallons of oil from the facility to flow into the Mediterranean Sea, fouling more than half of the Lebanese coast and part of Syria's as well. Lebanon's 5-km2 Palm Islands Nature Reserve, comprising three uninhabited islands and their surrounding waters, was hit by the spreading oil. The site's shores - used as nesting grounds by endangered loggerhead turtles and as staging areas for migrating birds now on their way through the region - have been covered by sheens and sludge. According to an assessment mission on 19 August by the reserve's management team and IUCN, significant amounts of oil have sunk to the seabed as well, making clean-up more difficult.

Immediately following the mid-August assessment, reserve management began clean-up operations on an ad hoc basis on the main island of the reserve, where the turtle beaches are located. To coordinate this clean-up and monitor impacts on biodiversity, the Lebanese Ministry of Environment created an Oil Spill Operations and Coordination Center (OSOOC), consisting of international spill response experts and ministry staff. Hala Kilani of IUCN, involved in the OSOOC work, says the clean-up and damage assessment will take "several months, if not years" to carry out. Several foreign governments have contributed spill-response expertise and millions of dollars in aid to support the clean-up.

Response operations were hampered by an Israeli sea blockade of the Lebanese coast, which made the safety of spill-responders uncertain. Although a ceasefire between Israeli and Hizbullah forces took effect on 14 August, Israel continued its blockade until 8 September, with an Israeli war ship remaining positioned off one of the reserve's islands - rock-lined Ramkin Island. As of early September, the assessment and clean-up teams had not yet gone to Ramkin - in part to avoid potential trouble and in part because the sandy beaches of the main island (Palm) had been prioritized for rapid response in the OSOOC response plan. "There is no guessing what the Israeli reaction would be if they saw a bunch of people landing on Ramkin," says Kilani, who notes the August assessment team was accompanied by an NGO and a film crew. "Here in Lebanon, people prefer to take precautions."

In the Philippines on 11 August, a tanker ship (M/T Solar I) containing 2 million liters of bunker fuel as cargo sank in rough seas off the coast of Guimaras Island, spilling more than a tenth of its fuel cargo so far. The resulting slick, 20 nautical miles wide, has heavily impacted 11 coastal communities, or "barangays", as well as four locally managed marine sanctuaries and the 10-km2 Taklong Island National Marine Reserve.

The Taklong reserve - featuring mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds - has served as a field laboratory for MPA research, including on larval export and reserve effects ("Measuring Larval Spillover from a Reserve", MPA News 4:9). Willy Campos, a marine biologist at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas who has studied the reserve for years, is leading a team of researchers to examine the impact of the spill on young fishes, which normally depend on the now-oiled mangroves as a nursery area. "It is good that we have baseline data on Taklong [from studies prior to the spill]," Campos said in a statement. "Now, at least, we can compare the research results to the original data we have on the reserve." His comments are available at http://www.upv.edu.ph/news/news.php?id=62.

Within two hours of the tanker sinking, the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan was activated and the Philippine Coast Guard assigned a task force to provide overall strategy and direction for spill management. A Coast Guard briefing on the spill described the remaining fuel on the sunken tanker as "an environmental time bomb". Liza Eisma-Osorio of the Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, an NGO that is assisting with fundraising to support response efforts, says, "We have had oil spills before in the Philippines but never of this magnitude." (Donations can be made at http://www.projectsunrise.org.) Shoreline clean-up of affected areas has begun, including the use of sacks of human hair clippings, gathered nationwide by barbers and hairdressers, as improvised spill booms to adsorb the oil.

To guard against such a disaster occurring again, the Philippine government has indicated its intent to establish sea lanes for vessels carrying oil and other hazardous substances to keep them away from ecologically sensitive areas. Currently the Philippine archipelago, with more than 7000 islands, relies on a fleet of 200 tanker vessels to carry fuel oil from Luzon Island - where the country's two refineries are located - to outlying islands.

Preparing for spills

There are steps MPA managers can take to prepare their sites against spills and reduce the risk of irreparable environmental harm. Management of Cousin Island Special Reserve in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, for example, has actively contributed to the development of the country's oil spill contingency plan, overseen by the Seychelles Coastguards. In the case of a spill, the manager of the small reserve (with a marine portion of 1.5 km2) will contact the Coastguards with information, and the Coastguards will mobilize other agencies and take action. A helicopter pad is available on-site for responders to use to deliver equipment and personnel.

On a larger scale, the US National Marine Sanctuary Program has conducted multi-agency spill-response exercises the past two years to test readiness for a major spill in a national marine sanctuary. Called "Safe Seas" (previously "Safe Sanctuaries"), the program uses biodegradable drift cards to simulate spill pollutants, and involves multiple vessels and hundreds of people in training, field operations, oceanographic surveys, and incident command-post activities. "Spill exercises are excellent opportunities to test your personnel and expertise, or to try new equipment," says Lisa Symons, who coordinates the drills. "They should challenge and stretch responders with real-time environmental conditions and a complex, realistic scenario, rather than being a pro-forma 'check-the-box' activity."

Symons encourages MPA managers everywhere to make sure their local response organizations are aware of the resources at risk in the MPAs, as well as what assets and expertise the managers may be able to contribute during an emergency. "It is a good idea for managers to invest in training for scientific and enforcement staff so that they can be an effective part of a response," she says. Information on the 2005 exercise in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the 2006 exercise in the Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries is available at http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/safeseas/welcome.html.

For more information:

Hala Kilani, IUCN Lebanon Mission, Lebanon. Tel: +962 777 888 182; E-mail: Hala.Kilani [at] iucn.org; Web: www.iucn.org/places/wescana

Liza Eisma-Osorio, Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, Rm 302, Third Floor, PDI Condominium, Banilad, Cebu City, Philippines. Tel: +63 32 233 6947; E-mail: ccef-ed [at] mozcom.com

Lisa Symons, National Marine Sanctuary Program, 1305 East-West Highway, SSMC #4, #11606, Silver Spring, MD 20910, USA. Tel: +1 301 713 3125; E-mail: lisa.symons [at] noaa.gov