The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) responded to an oil spill in Algoa Bay on Wednesday, 17 November 2021. The spill was a result of offshore bunkering by the Croatian-flagged MV Solin, when the receiving fuel tank overflowed with the heavy fuel oil. The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has since confirmed that it was 400 litres of heavy fuel that was spilled, and not the 80 litres that was originally reported.
Four oiled birds were identified and rescued for admission to SANCCOB’s seabird hospital in Gqeberha; three Cape gannets and one African penguin. Unfortunately, one Cape gannet died of malnutrition during transport and one Cape gannet suffering with a fractured leg had to be euthanised. The remaining Cape gannet and African penguin are still in the care of SANCCOB Gqeberha and likely to be released in three weeks, once their waterproof plumage meets SANCCOB’s release criteria.
This is the third oil spill since 2016 that has occurred in the region since ship-to-ship bunkering has been permitted. SANCCOB fears that as industrialisation around Coega in Nelson Mandela Bay expands, so does the likelihood of it further affecting marine wildlife. In accordance with the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan, SAMSA swiftly initiated all relevant oil spill response teams after the spill, which included SANCCOB, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), SANParks, Transnet National Ports Authority and Xtreme Projects. Containment and clean-up operations, including clean-up efforts along the shoreline, have concluded and the demobilisation plan is commencing.
Major concerns around the oil spill were the proximity to the ecologically sensitive St Croix Island, as well as the forecasted weather conditions just after the spill, which placed a variety of endangered seabirds at risk of being oiled. SANCCOB presumes that the moult season kept African penguins safe from oiling as they remain on land during such time.
In 2021, a census on the African penguin population was carried out by a member of DFFE on the island of St Croix, which revealed that there are around 1,500 breeding pairs on the Island, a drastic decline of more than 2,000 breeding pairs since the 2019 census; overall decline of over 70% at this colony since 2014.
SANCCOB’s Head of Conservation, Nicky Stander, says, “We are extremely relieved that the oil spill has had minimal impact on sensitive species in the vicinity, such as endangered African penguin and other seabirds. This incident is yet another reminder of the high risks associated with ship-to-ship fuel bunkering.”