Oil spill scenario is déjà vu for Bermuda

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I t seems like déjà vu for lifelong conservationist and ornithologist Dr. David Wingate, as he drifts back to the late 1960s early 70s, when there was no conventional control of oil pollution. Super oil tankers crossing the Atlantic Ocean carelessly flushed the oil sludge into the sea as they returned empty for another load. "As the amount of oil being shipped was increasing exponentially this practice began to pollute the oceans," said Dr. Wingate.

Bermuda being the only land mass in the Sargasso Gyre this island began to experience the devastating impact of floating tar lumps in the late 1960s and early 70s. The Island's wildlife was hard hit by the oil spill. "It was hitting us disproportionately because of our location in the Sargasso Gyre. Certainly my impression was the whole community declined including Sargasso weed and all the organisms in it," said Dr. Wingate.

The longtails that returned in spring to nest were smeared with patches of tar on their plumage. "At its worst in 1974 I was counting – one out of every four had some tar smears on it, most of the previous years it was one in every 10."

  • <b>Holding on: </b>Bermuda Environmental Alliance's founding executive director Sangita Iyer holds a Bermuda Petrel, widely known as the cahow, which may be affected if the Gulf oil spill spreads into the northern reaches of the Atlantic.

    Holding on: Bermuda Environmental Alliance's founding executive director Sangita Iyer holds a Bermuda Petrel, widely known as the cahow, which may be affected if the Gulf oil spill spreads into the northern reaches of the Atlantic.


I t seems like déjà vu for lifelong conservationist and ornithologist Dr. David Wingate, as he drifts back to the late 1960s early 70s, when there was no conventional control of oil pollution. Super oil tankers crossing the Atlantic Ocean carelessly flushed the oil sludge into the sea as they returned empty for another load. "As the amount of oil being shipped was increasing exponentially this practice began to pollute the oceans," said Dr. Wingate.

Bermuda being the only land mass in the Sargasso Gyre this island began to experience the devastating impact of floating tar lumps in the late 1960s and early 70s. The Island's wildlife was hard hit by the oil spill. "It was hitting us disproportionately because of our location in the Sargasso Gyre. Certainly my impression was the whole community declined including Sargasso weed and all the organisms in it," said Dr. Wingate.

The longtails that returned in spring to nest were smeared with patches of tar on their plumage. "At its worst in 1974 I was counting – one out of every four had some tar smears on it, most of the previous years it was one in every 10."

Dr. Wingate explains they were picking up tar in two ways – "Longtails usually spend a lot of time in the open ocean sitting on the water. This made it easy for the tar lumps to smear their plumage, as they fluffed their flank feathers on the side." The oil smeared further into wings when the birds tried to preen, causing the feathers to stick, and making it difficult to fly.

In addition their nest holes in the rock crevices became flooded during winter storms, dumping tarry lumps into the nests. When the birds returned to their safe haven their plumage became contaminated.

Numerous loggerhead turtles, hatching green turtles and hatching hawksbill turtles found during that period were covered with oil sludge, most visibly affecting their eyes. Dr. Wingate recalls collecting numerous turtles from the beaches and cleaning them up, but the ones that didn't get the attention became stranded and ultimately died.

"I have never found any cahow with oil on it because of their way of life. They feed in a different manner and they don't sit in areas where tar lumps accumulate, but this is a guess. "

Meantime another problem made its way into the hotels as the pristine pink beaches became riddled with black sludge balls, they were picked up by tourists on their feet and tarry footprints in hotel lobbies and carpets became a common sight. It became so messy that the tourists had to de-contaminate their feet before entering the hotel.

Crude oil has various consistencies, ranging from light oil, for example gasoline, to soupy sludge to asphalt like tar balls that have heavier and longer carbon chains. All of them impact the marine environment on various levels.

Dr. Wingate is not overly concerned about the lighter fractions, which he believes will evaporate in the open ocean. "However it's the sludge and tar balls we need to be concerned about – the tarry lumps are not only dangerous for the wildlife but also last for the longest time."

It has taken years if not decades for the tar lumps from the 1960s to break down and just when Bermuda's green turtles and Bermuda petrels, commonly known as the cahows, are showing signs of revival, the BP oil spill is making its way into the gulf stream and according to some predictions is expected to pass Bermuda in 90 days.

Valuable lessons learned from the 1960s oil spill, Dr. Wingate believes could be applied in Bermuda as the worst oil spill in US history encroaches towards the island. "We already know what major oil pollution can do. Tar lump will get entangled into the Sargasso weed and start to pollute all the life forms in it, including the fish." Dr. Wingate laments.

The biggest concern for Bermuda is that the eddy currents will take the oil to Sargasso Gyre, where everything flows towards the centre in a circular flow. This is where Sargasso weeds abound. Although Dr. Wingate doesn't believe the Gulf of Mexico oil spill would be as devastating for Bermuda as it has been for the US, he fears that if the latest computer model of oil dispersal becomes a reality then the Bermuda Cahows could face serious problems.

According to the computer model oil could make its way to the very place where the cahows feed. GPS tags attached on the cahows reveal that they feed on the western and northern edge of the Gulf Stream where the warm and cold waters meet further north. "If the oil gets entrenched into the Gulf Stream as fast the computer model suggests then lighter fraction floating on the sea surface may not have evaporated. These are deadly for the birds."

However, he thinks as the oil disperses in the vast ocean fewer birds will encounter it.

Minister Glenn Blakeney has shrugged off concerns that fresh oil will reach Bermuda's shores. Minister Blakeney told the House of Assembly recently that although there is the threat related to the defacing of beaches by tar balls, he's more worried about the toxicity of oil and of the chemical dispersal agents being used in large quantities. "At the moment the evidence for a toxicity impact is circumstantial. For example there has been a significant rise in the number of stranded and dead turtles noted in the Gulf of Mexico. But there was no obvious presence of oil, neither on the body surface or internally," he said.

Minister Blakeney also said he's not too concerned about a submerged plume of emulsified oil reaching the Atlantic because "the levels or concentration of this material in the water column seems to quickly fall to a few parts per billion or per trillion parts of sea water that is barely measurable within 50 miles of the source of the oil. There is also little to no risk of fresh oil reaching Bermuda."

He added that the Bermuda government is "actively studying the possible impacts" and trying to find ways to reduce the environmental impact on Bermuda.

Premier of Bermuda, and Minister of Tourism, Dr. Ewart Brown told the BEA that "Through the Environment Ministry, we are monitoring the situation as closely as possible. The hoteliers are in the loop and we will do whatever we have to do to minimise the impact. To begin to elaborate on what could happen would be counter-productive."

Meantime Dr. Wingate says the most Bermuda can do at this time is to clean up tar lumps from the beaches, which is the only place he predicts Bermuda would see obvious problems. And he predicts Bermuda is sure to feel the economic pinch, as the price for fish and shrimps will inevitably go up after the US government placed a ban on coastal fisheries in the gulf region.

To prevent such massive oil spills Dr. Wingate is calling on the public to lobby governments to impose more stringent regulations on oil exploration and extraction with greater safety back-ups. Dr. Wingate is also challenging the public to be responsible and wean off their oil addiction. "Oil companies are simply providing us oil for cars that we demand," he said.

l Article written by Sangita Iyer, founding executive director of the Bermuda Environmental Alliance. (www.bermuda-bea.org)

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