Ningaloo Reef is the longest fringing coral reef on the West Coast of any continent and an important feeding ground for the mysterious whale shark. It is an iconic marine area for Western Australians and supports an important and vibrant tourism industry. It is currently the subject of a world heritage nomination.
A local tourism operator who reported the incident wrote “on Sunday the 25th April I went out Whale sharking and found an Oil Tanker anchored just a few hundred meters outside South Passage!… It looks to me (and this is only speculation ) that the vessel was a few days early at the destination and decided to do some R&R and fishing!”
The observation is backed up by the evidence, the ship, an oil tanker named the Carmel, was due to take oil from Woodside’s Enfield FPSO on the 27th April, but had arrived from Singapore a few days early and decided to anchor in the marine park.
It turned out the vessel was contracted by BP, a company who is taking a battering after a series of failures by another contractor in the Gulf of Mexico caused led to one of the USA’s biggest oil spills.
Many concerns were raised by environmental groups when oil development was first proposed off Ningaloo Reef, these included concerns about ships carrying oil to and from the development impacting on the reef. The companies assured the community that ships would not come near the marine park because the route to Asian markets meant ships would come and leave from the north. Woodside’s Enfield floating production and storage tanker (FPSO) that produces the oil sits approximately 20km to the North of Ningaloo Marine Park Boundary.
The companies involved also claim that they have comprehensive policies that prohibit contractors operating within an exclusion zone around the marine park. However, neither these policies nor previous reassurances prevented the ship from being a very large and real presence within the park on the morning of the 25th April.
The marine park owners themselves, the Department of Environment and Conservation, have also been accused by locals of a lax attitude when the issue was reported to them. Infact, it seems from reports from the region that neither the Shire, the DEC or the DPI were particularly interested. It took a report to one of the oil companies involved before anyone took any notice and the ship was moved on.
DEC has since clarified that there are no regulations to require controls on shipping and anchoring within the precious marine park unless local arrangements have been developed. None of these arrangements applied. However, that wouldn’t have stopped the authorities from speaking directly with the ship or its contractors. It seems amazing that none of the local or state authorities were particularly concerned by this event.
The potential impacts of anchoring a large vessel of foreign origin in a marine park are many, from direct damage by their massive anchors, to the introduction of invasive marine pests from foreign waters to the more devastating impacts we saw recently on the Great Barrier reef where a beached coal tanker dragged across a large area of reef killing coral both directly and through toxic antifouling chemicals used to keep the hull free of marine organisms, and of course leaking oil.
This oil tanker was empty, but that doesn’t entirely remove the risk of an oil spill. Oil tankers run on heavy diesel and contain large amounts of this potential pollutant in their fuel tanks.
Hopefully, now it has gone public, something will be done by both oil companies and the Government to ensure it doesn’t happen again. It seems from what locals are saying that at least Woodside and BP are taking this incident seriously, so we will have to wait and see what their response is.
The potential for a disaster has been averted in this instance, but the story won’t be over until better procedures and regulations are put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
More coverage in The West Australian here.