Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds

No seabirds oiled but the African penguin numbers at St Croix is concerning

On Monday, 23 May 2022, oil spilled into the ocean from a ruptured hose during a fuel ship-to-ship bunkering operation in Algoa Bay. The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) immediately initiated all relevant oil spill response teams, including the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), as per the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan to assist with the containment and clean-up operation.

Extensive surveillance operations occurred in the immediate aftermath of the spill. Aerial, land, and boat-based surveys took place throughout the week targeting key areas of concern. On Thursday, 26 May, a fixed-wing aircraft with highly specialised camera capability, including oil sensors, was commissioned from Cape Town to complete a survey of the entire bay, and no visible oil patches were reported along the shore or at sea.

Shoreline surveys were conducted between the Swartkops River Mouth and Sundays River, and between Sunday’s River and Woody Cape. Daily boat patrols occurred around St Croix Island and the smaller islands of Jahleel and Brenton whilst daily foot patrols took place on Bird Island. Unfortunately, due to poor weather conditions, SANParks were unable to conduct daily foot patrols on St Croix; however, a drone survey of St Croix Island provided useful footage to examine whether any seabirds were affected by oil pollution. SANCCOB Gqeberha did not admit any oiled seabirds although oil was observed in the Marine Protected Area and in areas where they are known to forage. The spill occurred near the ecologically sensitive St Croix Island and early trajectory modelling indicated that the oil was moving towards St Croix; however, the oil was cleaned up before it reached the Island. A single oiled tern was observed in flight during one of the boat patrols but rescue was not possible.

Whilst SANCCOB is relieved that the oil spill has had minimal impact on sensitive seabird species such as the African penguin, we believe that this is likely due to the significant decline in the African penguin population on St Croix Island. With just over 1,000 breeding pairs left on St Croix, it is hard to believe that this was the largest breeding colony for endangered African penguins just a few years ago. Drone footage from the aerial surveillance conducted on from 29 to 30 May 2022 revealed a large empty island with a few patches of African penguins; revealing a stark contrast to the previously dense populated landscape.

This spill occurred only a few weeks after the National Deployment Exercise, whereby SANCCOB had the opportunity to test its response capabilities with other national stakeholders. Oil spills can occur at any time and responders are required to be ready to respond at short notice. Over time, we have built up a stockpile of oiled wildlife response equipment strategically located in Gqeberha and Cape Town that can be accessed for oiled wildlife response on a national scale. SANCCOB’s conservation team regularly participates in internal and external deployment exercises to test preparedness at any given time and ensure the organisation remain effective in its response operations.

June 3, 2022

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