NATIONAL

Oil spill: ‘Slow poisoning has begun'

RESCUE ON SEA: An accommodation barge ‘Sea Patriot' conducting salvage operations on Wednesday on the cargo vessel MSC Chitra. — Photo: PTI

RESCUE ON SEA: An accommodation barge ‘Sea Patriot' conducting salvage operations on Wednesday on the cargo vessel MSC Chitra. — Photo: PTI  

The oil slick has also reached the high tide mark; experts see signs of ecological disaster

The effect of the oil leak from MSC Chitra may not be as dramatic as hordes of blackened dead fish being washed off the shore or some oil-slick-ridden duckling being spotted somewhere. But, according to Deepak Apte, Assistant Director, Bombay Natural History Society, the process of slow poisoning has begun.

And the first victims are being spotted everywhere – from the Mumbai coastline to some parts of the biodiversity-rich Konkan (coastal region of Maharashtra). The oil slick has also reached the high tide mark in these areas.

Experts say that the leak has set an ecological disaster in motion, which will see many casualties. The only thing is the casualties will not include human beings now. But as the lower strata of the food chain gets affected, even that possibility cannot be denied. According to experts, contamination transfers to higher levels of food chain soon after it reaches the lowest strata.

There have already been reports of dead sea-snakes, smeared with oil, being spotted on the Uran beach and the mangroves turning black in Vashi in Mumbai.

Worst affected

Sasawne in Konkan is one of the worst-affected areas. The stench of the oil can be smelled from as far as 150 metres“I spotted the tentacles of so many small filter feeders [animal-like sponges which filter food particles from the sea] and other small sea animals full of oil here,” Mr. Apte said during the field visit to the affected areas. He showed sea algae swathed in oil. “They will all die,” he said.

Though the Mandwa beach looks comparatively cleaner from a distance, if one stands on the shore, the sand around the feet, which erodes after the wave, leaves a glistening rim bordering the footmarks. Just a bit of digging in the sand reveals a thin layer of oil that has already percolated in the sand and has formed a thin film beneath. This film asphyxiates all the life forms beneath it.

Walking on this beach tars one's feet. Dipping the hands in the sea at Sasawne greases the palms.

Worrisome

This is worrisome as it is a much richer area in terms of marine biodiversity and has lots of sensitive species. This region also breeds marine organisms such as lobsters and oysters. They survive on dead and decaying material in the sea and the filter feeders. The disturbance in this breeding ground is set to have an adverse impact on the livelihood of the people there, as that is their primary source of survival.

Affects tourism

The oil contamination in the sea is also set to affect the tourism in this region, which is an all-time favourite weekend destination for many from Mumbai, Pune and nearby cities. “People come here with their families to set out in the open and beautiful sea. With this leak, the entire area is contaminated now. Who would want to come here to smell the oil?” asked Ravi Apte, who owns a home stay facility close to the sea shore in Sasawne.

The area is also known for turtle nesting. December to February is the nesting season here. “As the oil has percolated in the substrata of the sand, it is very difficult for the eggs to hatch. Even if you come here after three years, you will still find the oil here,” Mr. Deepak Apte said.

The villagers are primarily concerned about their livelihood now. “The government has issued a warning against going in the sea. But this is festive season for us with raksha bandhan and other festivals. We cannot celebrate in this condition,” said Ramchandra Nakwa, a fisherman from Revas.

The slipped containers of the ship have goods strewn across the beach. People have been carrying bagful of tea powder, biscuits and other goodies for the past three days. Experts do not discount the possibility of their contamination, but the villagers ignore the warnings.

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