IMA warns against selling toxic fish from Tobago oil spill

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Institute of Marine Affairs director Dr Ava Maxam, right, and coral reef ecologist Dr Anjani Ganase, on a site visit to the Petit Trou lagoon in Tobago. – Photo courtesy IMA

Fisherfolk in Tobago are being urged to desist from catching and selling fish from areas affected by the recent oil spill.

Director of the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) Dr Ava Maxam made the plea during an interview with Newsday on February 13, following last Wednesday’s oil spill caused by an overturned boat about 200 metres off the coast of the Cove Eco Industrial Park.

The unmanned vessel, named Gulfstream, continues to leak an oily substance into the Atlantic ocean, one week after it seemingly drifted into Tobago’s waters. A release from the Ministry of National Security on Wednesday said there were two vessels involved in the spill, a tugboat and the overturned barge. The release said the vessels were on route from Panama to Guyana. The vessels’ owners have yet to be identified.

Thick oil has blackened the shorelines of several coastal villages, including Petit Trou beach, Lambeau, Lowlands, near the Magdalena Beach & Golf Resort and along the Scarborough waterfront, Milford Road.

Booms have been deployed to contain the spill and stop the oil from affecting operations at the Port of Scarborough, where cruise ships and the inter-island ferry arrive.

The IMA sent a team to Tobago on Saturday to conduct initial ecological assessments of mangroves, beaches and other areas affected by the spill.

As the Lenten season begins, the demand for fish spikes as many Christians refrain from meat as part of their fasting.

Maxam confirmed that the team has found dead animals, including fish, during site visits.

She said there is an agency that is assisting the Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) with the clean-up of some of these dead animals. She said though not a lot has been found, on the scale of things it is not an extensive die out that is being seen of animals, but there are some from die outs.

“Yes, but it’s not as much as we thought it would have been.”

She said it is important that fishes in affected areas not be consumed.

“I even heard the THA sending out those alerts to the fisherfolk, not to be selling fish in those areas. These are toxic chemicals that can accumulate in animals and then they’re consumed by humans – they can in turn cause damage to humans, so we’re sending out that message.

“Please, anything that is caught in the area and harvested from the area for the sake of human consumption, try to avoid these until our assessments are complete and we feel like the habitats have gone back to normal levels.”

Meantime, the corals, she said, that are most affected are those that are found in shallow areas.

“This includes areas such a Kilgwyn Bay as coral and seagrass grow very close to the shores. You find in these kinds of high-wave environment; wind actions may disburse the oil. We know oil is toxic so those corals and marine life, the mangrove and so on…

“So ecologically, we’re trying to look at the damage to the marine flora and fauna but there are areas that we want to pay attention to because Petit Trou, for example, is already an area that we found was under pressure.”

She added: “There was some damage that it was experiencing, so there was some really old mangrove system that is well developed but we realise that there were some die outs; so maybe from a year or two years before, like something was already impacting the mangroves. We know that this is an area where those mangroves are not only ecologically important, but they are a part of Tobago’s assets for tourism. With that damage already occurring to the mangrove, it is now more vulnerable seeing that the oil is turning up on these mangroves.”

At a press conference on Sunday, the Prime Minister said tests are still being done to determine what is the oily substance leaking from the boat. Maxam said, “We’re also tasked with collecting the oil samples and the oil samples. We want to ensure that we collect them from the source –which is the vessel that overturned, as well as in the water from areas that we think were impacted or may be impacted – beaches, mangroves and so on.

“With the oil spill, that allows us to show the areas that are impacted, if it is that they are impacted by that particular oil coming from the vessel, and we want to make sure that the restoration and the recovery that is put in place, whatever plan is put in place, that it is a plan that is robust and will indeed find the best way of making sure that these areas are restored.”

How long would restoration of affected areas take?

“That is the million-dollar question. It really would depend on how we assess things now.”

She added: “We have been observing some of the oil coming ashore, especially around Scarborough, the Petit Trou lagoon area into those mangroves, around the Flying Reef area. These are areas that we are particularly concerned about.”

She noted that the THA and TEMA have been doing a great job in involving her unit and taking advice on how these areas should be monitored.

“Right now, it’s a lot that’s been happening, it’s very dynamic.

“The agencies have been collaborating very well – TEMA and the THA have tried as best as possible to get the relevant agencies locally on board. What’s important too – there are a lot of agencies and organisations internationally that have been contacting them as well, so they have been having these meetings where it involves both local and international organisations so I think that they have been doing a job as good as they can given the resources that they have.”

Last Thursday, THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine said there is a strong possibility Tobago may need international assistance to address the environmental fallout.

Maxam wholeheartedly agreed.

“A lot of the resources that is needed, that is something that we do not have on the island; so these are equipment that has to be brought in. Having to bring in equipment, whether it’s done by air or by sea, it takes time, unfortunately. The THA and TEMA have had to rely on some of their international partners and they are in continuous talks.”