by Melanie Duchin

February 19, 2007

This morning at 5:40am marked five days since the Nisshin Maru first sent out a mayday distress call. Since then, the ship has been sitting here, disabled, in the Ross  Sea.  Greenpeace has been on-scene with the Nisshin Maru for over three days to offer assistance, including towing the crippled whaling vessel north, out of the Antarctic.  All of our offers to tow the vessel to safety have been refused by the Japanese authorities in Tokyo.   We have been told that the whaling fleet will use its own vessels to tow the Nisshin Maru north, however, the Esperanza still remains the best-equipped ship for the job. Our captain, Frank Kamp, has ten years experience working on salvage vessels, including experience in the hazardous waters of the North Sea.

It’s not just Greenpeace that’s anxious for the Nisshin Maru to get a move on out of here. The New Zealand government has gone well beyond the bounds of normal diplomatic language to make the point.  New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark is clearly losing patience and said to the Japanese earlier this week: “My advice is if you can’t see a way of getting the boat out of there without some help from Greenpeace or from somebody else, the world is going to be very upset if there is a spill in that area.”  She has also said that the Japanese government’s whaling program could be subject to a new wave of criticism if the Nisshin Maru spills oil into the pristine Antarctic environment. Other governments should be asking the same questions.   

It seems that Ms. Clark sees what is blindingly obvious: the only issue at hand right now is getting the oil-laden Nisshin Maru out of the Antarctic immediately. Unfortunately, the Japanese government has blinders on, and is more concerned about saving face and not accepting help from Greenpeace – a group that has vociferously opposed its high seas whaling program for decades – than with getting its ship out of this environment.  The Japanese politicians say they can tow the Nisshin Maru with other boats from the whaling fleet, but still, the Nisshin Maru sits here.  It’s a game of Russian Roulette and the odds get worse with every passing day.

In the U.S., the disaster caused by the Exxon Valdez running aground in Alaska almost 18 years ago sparked new state and federal regulations governing oil spill response and clean up plans. The problem with these plans is that they may look good on paper, but in reality, they don’t pass muster.  In my ten years with Greenpeace in Alaska, I have reviewed and commented on oil spill plans for offshore oil projects in the Beaufort Sea, a part of the Arctic Ocean just off Alaska’s north coast.   I’ve also observed “spill drills” where oil spill response equipment is put to the test in the BeauAdelie penguinfort Sea.  

My experience and first hand observation is that oil spill response at high latitudes ranges from incredibly difficult to impossible, even in summer months with 24 hours of light and relatively warm temperatures that hover around freezing.   Even in the short polar summer, weather can be unpredictable and fierce, and pack ice is always a complicating factor.  Year round, extreme wind, temperature and ice conditions often make it too risky to human life to even respond to an oil spill in the first place.   And tricky broken ice conditions in spring and fall make response virtually, if not completely impossible.  

And what does “cleaning up” an oil spill really mean?  Even under optimal conditions such as a temperate climate, calm seas, no wind and oil response equipment close at hand, only 15 percent of the spilled oil is actually removed from the environment. The rest remains, smothering birds and other wildlife so that they die of hypothermia, suffocation or by poisoning through ingesting oil in an effort to clean themselves.   The 18-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez is five weeks away and, even though Exxon Mobil declared the area “cleaned up” two years after the spill, numerous scientific studies show that it still poses far ranging problems for fish and wildlife, and continues to degrade the environment.    Indeed, when the spill first happened, scientists predicted the oil would be long gone by now. What they have found is that the oil is “weathering” away at a rate of three to four percent per year, which translates into the oil persisting in the environment for decades.  

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the only way to protect the fragile polar marine environments in the Arctic and Antarctic is to prevent an oil spill from happening in the first place. It’s time for the Japanese to stop playing Russian Roulette with the pristine Antarctic environment and get their crippled whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, out of here as soon as possible.


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