THE turquoise waters off Mauritius, once chosen by holiday makers and film crews for their beauty, became the centre of attention last month when more than 1,000 tonnes of oil leaked from a Japanese-owned ship into the ocean.
The oil spill was a double blow for the tourism-dependent island that has already seen its tourism season decimated as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis. Although the amount of oil that leaked into the ocean was lower when compared to previous ecological disasters, the impacts on the marine ecosystems are expected to continue well into the future.
What unfolded in the waters off Mauritius would explain why environmentalists here at home have sounded the alarm about the state of the Nabarima—a decommissioned oil tanker in the Gulf of Paria which has been reported as listing to starboard and taking on water, raising the threat of a massive oil spill.
Should the worst happen, it would be a disaster with serious implications for Venezuela, a country that has fallen out of favour with much of the world; and T&T, a small island developing state.
The possible threat of an oil spill was raised by Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), which sent letters in late August to US Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Joseph Mondello, and the European Union. The NGO is yet to receive a reply.
“We’re in the same situation of fear and panic. No one knows. There is no transparency. I don’t know why the politicians play the secrecy game. It may not be that the public can change the reality of what’s happening, but it may also be that recommendations can come from the public, from the country’s stakeholders who have primary knowledge that the scientists and administrators don’t. And we’re being locked out,” said Gary Aboud, of FFOS.
Disaster for marine life
According to a New York Times article the Nabarima is said to be almost filled to its capacity of 1.4 million barrels of crude—about five times the amount the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989. Just to put that into context, the Exxon Valdez oil spill went down in history as being the worst oil spill because of the toll it took on the environment. Given the size of the Nabarima, an oil spill will be an environmental catastrophe for both Trinidad and Venezuela, said communications officer for Environment Tobago Sean McCoon.
“As much as the Gulf of Paria does not look attractive because of the colour of the water, it supports a lot of biodiversity. There are wetlands which are the arteries of our country, the mangroves and swamps are spawning grounds for fish and other animals. There are many fishermen who depend on the Gulf of Paria.
“If there is an oil spill, it will be a disaster for marine life and those who depend on it and the effects of the spill will be visible on Trinidad’s north coast as well as along the South Western peninsula,”he said.
Co-founder and director of the non-profit organisation IAMovement Daniel Barcant is concerned that our happy-go-lucky mentality here in T&T could cost us dearly.
“If an oil spill does happen, it will devastate us. The Caroni Swamp and its wildlife like the scarlet ibis will be massively affected, and the communities that live along the coast will also be seriously affected. Our maritime and shipping industries will be decimated. It will take decades to recover from it,” he said.
Barcant referred to the Guiana current which comes up the east coast into the Columbus Channel, where it circulates in the Gulf of Paria before exiting by the Dragon’s Mouth.
If even a quarter of the oil in the tanker is leaked, the Guiana current will disperse it everywhere, said Barcant, who added that if money is spent on resources to help solve the dilemma with the tanker, it would save this country billions of dollars in expensive clean-up efforts, should the worst comes to pass.
Urgent action needed
At the heart of the environmental concerns is the Nabarima vessel, which is the responsibility of Venezuela’s government. The vessel has been decommissioned for some time.
Anchored in the Gulf of Paria, the Nabarima was used for storing crude oil and was a transit point for ships. The tanker has not been maintained in years and is said to have fallen into disrepair.
In recent weeks, worrying images of the ship’s flooded engine room emerged, along with reports that the vessel is leaning. In response, Energy Minister Franklin Khan said in an Express article published on September 2 that the Government had been informed that the floating oil storage tanker is “currently upright and in stable condition”. But, according to McCoon, that doesn’t change the fact that the vessel is taking on water. If urgent action isn’t taken, the vessel will sink or oil will begin leaking into the gulf, he said.
The situation of the Nabarima reminds Trinidad-born physical oceanographer Nicole Delpeche-Ellmann of the Prestige oil spill off the coast of Galicia, Spain, in November 2002.
“The similarity with Trinidad is that in both cases they knew that something was about to happen beforehand, but authorities could not advise the ship on where to go and or how to prevent the accident.
“In the Prestige case, it of course polluted coastal areas in Spain, France and Portugal, and it took about five to ten years for the marine areas to recover,” said the scientist, who works at the Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia.
Leaning on his expertise in international relations, McCoon said the maritime and international law protocols do not restrict our Government from helping out the Venezuelan authorities.
McCoon added that if the matter of the tanker is handled effectively by T&T and Venezuela, it would be a win-win for both countries.
“What we are required to do has nothing to do with the US government. We share a marine space with Venezuela and so the environmental and international law conventions have to kick in. I’m hoping that this new Government, which has obviously enjoyed a good relationship with Maduro’s government, will agitate for something to happen urgently,” he said.
The best and most practical hope for T&T is that the Nabarima is towed farther away into Venezuelan waters and/or unloaded safely, says Steven Greenleaf, founder of Greenleaf Education Costa Rica, which offers consulting services in environmental management, sustainability and renewable energy.
Greenleaf, who has done services for the Government of T&T and the private sector in the past, is not expecting a meaningful response from the Government.
“Trinidad and Tobago is one of the world’s most poorly regulated and protected nations, from an environmental perspective. Successive governments have done nothing to address this, other than make toothless statements, attend conferences, and pass the occasional unenforced law,” he said.
“The GORTT lacks the will power and the capacity to respond to any environmental issue in a meaningful way. There is no reason to believe that this will change.”
Some have accused environmentalists of stirring up panic. However, Aboud says the FFOS will not stay silent in the face of a potential environmental disaster.
“I’m happy for those people who are comforted by their own blindness. But we have more than enough information that there is cause for serious concern…and we could only be guided by intelligent news and reports by credible institutions.
“We don’t think that the Maduro regime is credible. If people prefer to be guided by information coming from them, then that is their choice.
“This could be the largest marine catastrophe in the history of our region. We prefer to be accused of fearmongering than to be accused of careless neglect,” said Aboud.