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UK penguins in peril as grounded ship threatens twin environmental disaster

Last modified: 21 March 2011

Rockhopper penguins

Oiled rockhopper penguins

Image: Trevor Glass

A grounded cargo vessel has been wrecked on Nightingale Island – part of the Tristan da Cunha UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic.

It threatens to create a twin environmental disaster for the island's wildlife, which includes nearly half of the world population of northern rockhopper penguin; one of the world's most threatened species of penguin.

The concerns of the Tristan Islanders, the Tristan Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds include the threat of oil pollution from the MS Oliva's fuel and partial cargo and also the risk of any rats on the vessel colonising the island, potentially placing the island's internationally-important seabird colonies in immense jeopardy.

The fuel oil and cargo of 1,500 tonnes of heavy crude oil is already leaking into the sea, poses a major hazard to the island's tens of thousands of pairs of penguin as well as the economically-important rock lobster fishery.

Oil now surrounds Nightingale Island and extends in to a slick eight miles offshore from the wreck. Hundreds of oiled penguins have already been seen coming ashore.

Please give to our Nightingale Island disaster fund. We'll use your donation to help the penguins and other wildlife affected by the oil. Your support will also be used to fund follow-up monitoring and to assess the full impact of this disaster.

The Tristan Conservation Department – which rapidly deployed nine people to the island – has already placed baited rodent traps on the shore in the vicinity of Spinner's Point, the headland on the north-west of the island where the bulk carrier has grounded.

A salvage tug is currently en-route from Cape Town with an experienced crew and environmental experts but she is not due to arrive at the island until Monday.

The ship has already broken in two, but all of the 22-strong crew are safe. As the situation is no longer a salvage operation, the Tristan authorities understand that the vessel's operators and insurers are investigating chartering a second vessel to assist with cleaning up the pollution and oiled seabirds.

Richard Cuthbert is an RSPB research biologist who has visited Nightingale Island. He said: 'How a modern and fully-laden cargo vessel can sail straight into an island beggars belief. The consequences of this wreck could be potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands.

'The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island. It is a disaster!'

'The Tristan da Cunha islands, especially Nightingale and adjacent Middle Island, hold million of nesting seabirds as well as four out of every ten of the world population of the globally endangered Northern rockhopper penguin. Over 200,000 penguins are currently on the islands and these birds will be heavily impacted by leaking oil.

'If the vessels happen to be harbouring rats and they get ashore, then a twin environmental catastrophe could arise. Nightingale is one of two large islands in the Tristan da Cunha group that are rodent free. If rats gain a foothold their impact would be devastating.

'Fortunately, the Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department has already done a brilliant job in placing rodent traps in the vicinity of the wreck, with the hope these will intercept any rats getting ashore.'

Trevor Glass is the Tristan Conservation Officer and has been working around the clock since the incident occurred early on Wednesday morning. Returning from an emergency assessment visit, he said: 'The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island. The Tristan Conservation Team are doing all they can to clean up the penguins that are currently coming ashore. It is a disaster!'