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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

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Ship-to-ship transfer bunkering threatening African penguin

A volunteer holds a penguin during feeding time at a bird hospital station. OBED ZILWA AP PHOTO

A volunteer holds a penguin during feeding time at a bird hospital station. OBED ZILWA AP PHOTO

Published Apr 2, 2022


Cape Town - The moratorium on ship-to-ship transfer (STS) bunkering was suspended after environmental organisations demanded a thorough environmental risk assessment take place.

Conservationists launched a petition with more than 12 000 signatures, raising concerns about the high risk involved in the transfer, and how it will affect the breeding grounds of endangered marine species such as the iconic African penguin.

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These concerns stem from the challenges experienced over the past six years after three oil spills occurred due to fuel STS bunkering, affecting endangered African penguins and other threatened seabird species.

Head of conservation at SANCCOB, Nicky Stander said that the African penguin population had been declining at an alarming rate due to anthropogenic threats, including oil pollution.

“The Algoa Bay ecosystem is recognised for its unique biological and ecological characteristics with high concentrations of marine species, including Bottlenose Dolphins, Humpback and Southern Right Whales and Great White Sharks. Algoa Bay has recently been declared a Whale Heritage Site, one of only five in the world; St Croix and Bird islands are home to more than 50% of the remaining population of endangered African penguins, however the African penguin is suffering the steepest population decline in history.

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“The advent of ship-to-ship bunkering has had a profound impact on vessel traffic in Algoa Bay since 2016. During this same time, the largest African penguin colony has declined by 80%. Vessel numbers have more than doubled in the bay, with bulk carriers having increased more than threefold. Vessel activity has been concentrated in shipping lanes and anchorage areas, where bunkering services are located that overlap important foraging areas for penguins from St Croix Island,” said Stander.

With scientists investigating the impact of marine noise pollution associated with these activities on African Penguins, senior UWC Biodiversity and conservation biology lecturer Dr Adriaan Engelbrecht, said that African penguins played several roles in the ecosystem they occupy.

“First from a natural point of view they are a food source to several ocean and land-based predators. These include seagulls who prey on their eggs and chicks, leopards who prey on nesting birds as well as mongooses. By sea they are preyed upon by several mammal predators (orcas, leopard seals for instance) and even crabs in warmer climates. Not only that but they also bring to the coast an enormous amount of nutrients in the form of ‘excrement’ thus enriching the coastal areas they visit encouraging phytoplankton growth which in turn feeds the zooplankton (fish larvae etc.) which becomes food for larger fish and so on.

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“From a human perspective maintaining a healthy penguin population in areas where they naturally occur becomes imperative since they directly impact local fish stocks and so with a decline in their numbers we have a huge warning call to local authorities about a possible collapse in the local fish biota (penguins eat the same fish we are interested in),” he said..

“STS bunkering is only beneficial to the shipping industry since it reduces the amount of time they use to transfer cargo such as oil and gas. As both ships are essentially moving in the tides, they run the risk of spillage during transfers. The build-up of all the spillage over time can cost marine life dearly as penguins get their feathers covered in oil which prevents them from proper thermoregulation and fish, as an example, can also be affected by phyto-and zooplankton which might have high concentrations of chemicals in them, leading to endocrine disruption and hormonal imbalances which affects their breeding.”

Engelbrecht warned: “For humans there are several down sides to this happening, for one we can get a collapse in fish stocks, second the fish we eat could have elevated pollutant levels meaning we could literally end up micro-poisoning ourselves over time. Local fishing communities might not be able to fish close to shore anymore due to collapsed fish stocks and suffer directly from STS activities.

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“So from an environmental point of view broadscale implementation of STS can have devastating effects even if very stringent legislation is in place. To my mind this procedure can be correlated to performing open heart surgery on a waterbed in a moving bus on the N2! It's that risky due to the highly unpredictable weather at sea, the sea itself and the huge potential for human error.

He said due to the ever expanding human population, maintaining Biodiversity in areas such as Algoa Bay was imperative to maintain the livelihoods of communities that are already suffering due to fish stock decline.

Following inter-departmental consultations, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) spokesperson Tebogo Ramatjie, said that the application window for Bunkering licences will be extended until the finalisation of the Risk Assessment Study.

“The moratorium on the issuing of bunkering licences in Algoa bay will not be lifted as the moratorium was suspended following inter-departmental consultations.

“The application window for Bunkering licences for Algoa Bay will be extended until the finalisation of the Risk Assessment Study and SAMSA wishes to apologise for any inconvenience caused by this suspension, and will continue to work with stakeholders in the Bunkering space to reach a satisfactory conclusion,” said Ramatjie.

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