Editorial: Oil damage can never be undone

As marine rescue workers continue the arduous task of cleaning oil-soaked African penguins in the hopes of ensuring the critically-endangered birds’ survival, questions still linger over the second source of the devastating spills in Algoa Bay.

With more than 150 penguins, including extremely vulnerable chicks, affected, maritime authorities fear this could be the Bay’s worst oil disaster in years.

Conservationists, too, are right to be concerned about the impact the spill could have on our penguin colonies, not to mention other sea birds like gannets, cormorants and gulls that are not always immediately affected.

In any environmental crisis there are always heroes: take the volunteers and staff at the SA Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) in Cape St Francis and the SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec) at Cape Recife.

They have their hands full, since some of the penguins – already heavily stressed – will need multiple washes before release. Rehabilitation is not only costly, but can take months.

The other heroes are Kevin Kelly and his team from Xtreme Projects, who were in the water for the cleanup within 90 minutes of the first spill – the result of a ship-to-ship fuel transfer off Coega last Sunday.

The Bay is fortunate not only to have such a highly specialised team based here, but also that the wind blew the worst of the slick away from our penguin breeding islands.

The likes of Sanccob, Samrec, SAN Parks and the NSRI also have done their utmost, through coordinated effort, to minimise the effects of the spills as quickly as possible.

Our oceans are becoming cesspools: besides disasters like these, the presence of plastics and other pollutants is getting worse daily.

While the owners of the Energy Challenger, suspected of the first spill, have been fined R350 000, the cause of the second spill could be more deliberate.

Every effort is being made to identify and punish those responsible, and the net is closing on the culprits.

Sadly even the heftiest fine or ban can never undo all of the damage caused to sensitive marine ecosystems.

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