Oil spill hits LüderitzBy: TANJA BAUSE
AN ECOLOGICAL disaster is unfolding off the coast of Lüderitz. Oil, apparently seeping from the hull of the Meob Bay trawler that sank in 2002, is threatening endangered bird colonies.
At least 156 oil-covered African Penguins have already been rescued from the islands around Lüderitz. Endangered Cape Gannet and Bank Cormorant breeding sites are also at risk.
The first oil-covered penguins were spotted and rescued on Wednesday, April 8 and since then about 100 km of coastline has been affected by the oil spill, which stretches from Possession Island just south of Lüderitz to Mercury Island, about halfway between Lüderitz and Walvis Bay.
According to people in Lüderitz this is the biggest oil spill to date in Namibia and could turn into an environmental disaster.
The penguins that have been rescued so far have been taken to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources in Lüderitz where workers are washing the birds.
Unfortunately the natural oil that makes the birds waterproof is also washed off in the process.
It takes about a month before the natural waterproofing is replenished and until then they cannot be released.
Each bird needs to be fed six fish a day and they also need daily medication like eye ointment to help cope with the oil and the stress of being captured and scrubbed.
The Ministry and its workers cannot cope with the current 156 birds as they have only a very small rehabilitation centre and not enough helpers.
Thus 130 penguins will be transported to Cape Town where SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) will take care of them.
The ministry has obtained the necessary CITES permits and permissions for the transportation of the birds.
The other 30 birds will be kept at Lüderitz but the number is expected to rise again, as there were already sightings of more oil-covered penguins on Ichaboe Island yesterday morning.
The oil spill is in the area where the Meob Bay fishing trawler sank in June 2002, killing 19 seamen. The boat sank after a rope got caught in the propeller, which then detached causing water to flood into the engine room.
The boat had left Lüderitz harbour with full tanks and sank only 30 minutes later. To date nothing has been done to recover the oil from the wreck.
It is suspected that the hull has finally rusted through and that the oil is now seeping out.
If the oil is indeed leaking from the Meob Bay, the current oil slick is just the tip of the iceberg and people in the ministry at Lüderitz are bracing themselves for a catastrophe.
The wreck lies in the prime breeding spot of the African Penguin, which is endemic to the area. The birds breed only between Mercury Island and down the coast to South Africa.
They are only found along this piece of coastline and they are an endangered species. Their numbers have been dwindling over the last few years and it is feared that if this trend continues the species will not see the next decade.
Also breeding on the islands are the endemic and very endangered Cape Gannet and Bank Cormorant. Should the oil spill reach the cormorant it could mean the extinction of the species on the Namibian coast.
Cormorants cannot be rehabilitated or cleaned after an oil spill, as they cannot handle stress and would die. If the oil slick reaches the colony it would be a disaster for this species.
The 130 penguins that are being transported to Cape Town will most probably be released in Cape Town and they are expected to return to their breeding islands.
All the birds have been ringed and records of each bird are being kept in South Africa as well as in Namibia.
The people of Lüderitz have all come together and helped with the cleaning, feeding and medication of the penguins. Donations from the public have been received but much more is needed, as it is feared that the worst is yet to come.
People who wish to make donations can deposit money into the following account: Namibia Nature Foundation, NNF Project Support Fund: Penguin Conservation, account number 11 00 00 49 923, Nedbank, Windhoek Main Branch, branch code 461609.