Marine Fuel Spill Response: A Case Study in Polar Waters

Bahia Paraiso ran aground on 28 January 1989, ripping a 30-meter hole in its side from which fuel began to seep. After drifting for 3 days in the waters near Palmer Station on Anvers Island, the 430-foot-long ship rolled on its side, releasing more fuel into the local marine environment. To control the initial fuel spill a containment boom was put in place around the ship. (NSF photo by Thomas Forhan.)

The Argentine supply ship, Bahia Paraiso, ran aground and sank in January 1989 near Palmer Station, Antarctica. Although few people were injured, the accident spilled about 200,000 gallons of diesel and jet fuel. The spill caused long-term damage to certain populations in the marine ecosystem, and the prospects for a full recovery are unclear.

The National Science Foundation organized an emergency spill-response team composed of experts from the U.S. Navy, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard and private contractors. Arriving at Palmer Station one week after the accident, the team brought 52 tons of fuelspill response equipment for the initial survey and cleanup. In 1993 a special fund contributed by The Netherlands financed a major Dutch-Argentine salvage effort to remove the fuel that had remained in the ship's tanks.

The study of the effects of the fuel spill on the marine environment consisted of initial sampling begun within days of the ship's grounding, followed by the arrival in 6 weeks of an international, interdisciplinary research team organized by NSF. The initial spill killed as much as 50% of the mollusks and marine algae in the intertidal community. Little effect was seen on subtidal communities. Only a few hundred of the area's 30,000 adult seabirds were observed dead at the time of the spill, but adults bringing food to the nest site exposed their young to fuel-contaminated food. The most severe impact appeared to be in the cormorant colonies, where nearly 100% of the chicks died in a few months after the spill.

Continued studies on various components of the ecosystem over the past 7 years have shown different levels of impact. The intertidal community has been recovering. While the Adélie penguin colonies closest to the spill site no longer exist, changes in overall population numbers remain within the range of natural variability. Active nests of cormorants near the spill have decreased by more 60%, while those away from the spill have remained constant. A steady decline in active kelp gull nests has persisted, suggesting that the initial damage to its mollusk food source drove the bird populations down. Populations of three other species of seabirds were not adversely affected.

Long-term studies are necessary for understanding the impact of fuel spills on different ecosystem components. The establishment of a Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site at Palmer Station ensures the collection of long-term data related to the spill. This project builds on the 25-year record of observations on the maritime ecosystem at Palmer Station. Because of this baseline, the project is one of the few to document the impacts of a fuel spill in polar regions. Should future spills occur in the Arctic or the Antarctic, this project will provide valuable information on ecosystem impact and recovery.

In recognition of its role following the spill, in 1993 the U.S. Antarctic Program received a Gold Medal Clean Seas International Award from the government of Malta "for praiseworthy efforts in conjunction with the preservation of a clean marine environment."

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