Tobago continues to grapple with oil spill caused by unidentified tanker

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On Wednesday February 7, just prior to the much anticipated long weekend for Trinidad and Tobago Carnival when many Trinidadians who are not participating in the festival head to the sister isle for a beach getaway, an overturned ship caused an oil spill, darkening Tobago's turquoise blue waters, polluting them with sludge (thought to be diesel), and causing an environmental hazard.

As the oil continued to seep out of the tanker from its location off the island's south-west coast — an estimated 15 kilometres (9 miles) of coastline was initially affected — cleanup efforts were launched by the Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and other volunteers, in an effort to contain the spread by deploying protective floating barriers and manually removing oil-soaked sargassum peat moss.

However, as of the afternoon of February 11, the leak had reportedly spread much further:

The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard was dispatched to the vessel but found that no distress calls had been sent from the ship and no crew remained on board. The vessel was later discovered by divers to be named “Gulfstream.” Thus far, investigators have been unable to find the vessel's registration number due to poor visibility and constant movement, and its name has not been located in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) registry, though an online search pointed to the likelihood that it is part of a fleet of tankers dedicated to transporting oil products.

Divers also confirmed that the tanker did damage to the coral reef in nearby Canoe Bay. Lead diver Alvin Douglas, after a dive on February 9, said that the vessel's debris trail — as well as the fact that its superstructure had been torn off — suggested it had overturned before coming into contact with the reef. The team also found a cable that was connected to the bow of the vessel, causing them to believe that it may have been in tow.

The fact that the vessel has not yet been identified had many social media users distressed:

The spill was initially classified as a Tier II disaster, with the possibility of it being raised to a Tier III disaster level, at which point international aid would likely be requested. Prime Minister Keith Rowley later called the incident “a national emergency,” and said that a few countries (still unnamed) have already offered assistance.

Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Farley Augustine confirmed that divers still have not been able to contain the leak and are trying to determine how to remove the remaining oil from the vessel.

Meanwhile, beach-goers have been warned to keep away from the south-west coast, which boasts popular spots like Store Bay and Pigeon Point. Although some tour boat operators insisted that despite the spill, it would be “business as usual” in unaffected areas, the spill may negatively impacted the island's tourism at one of the most popular times of the year. There are also concerns that the oil will contaminate marine life on and beyond the nearby reef, and poison the food supply on an island that relies heavily on a fish-based diet.

It is not the first time a significant oil spill has taken place off Tobago, however. Veteran journalist Dominic Kalipersad noted that on July 19, 1979, one of the world's largest and deadliest spills happened off the coast of the island when a tropical storm caused two tankers to collide, leaking as much as 88.33 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean.

On Sunday, February 11, environmentalist Kevin Kenny kayaked around the coast of Petit Trou Lagoon, located on the south-east of the island, and reported that “large amounts of oil seem to have come in at high tide so the heavy concentrations are high up [and] these areas can be cleaned at low tide.” He thought it fortunate that in pockets where sargassum typically accumulates, “the oil is caught up in the weed which should also make clean up easier” on such “difficult” parts of the coast. Any sargassum that has trapped what is being referred to as “an oil-like substance” is being taken to a sealed containment area in Studley Park.

While he noticed “small amounts of oil globs floating” in the reef crest water, “they are not heavy and of minor concern.” Along the reef crest, meanwhile, he noticed bubbles — “either from some sort of cleaning agent used to clean up oil or from a microscopic layer of oil that you can't see or smell.”

The real challenge, he surmised, was not so much the reef, which to him showed little visible damage other than perhaps where the ship would have dragged along its unproductive outer crest, but “the inner mangrove roots that are completely covered in oil.” Mangroves are vital for the coastline protection of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), especially in the face of the climate crisis.

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