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‘Grave concern’ over oil spill impact on island paradise

March 7, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Tourism Solomons is gravely concerned about continuing failure to deal with a major oil spill in the Solomon Islands that threatens a UNESCO World Heritage listed marine sanctuary.

The MV Solomon Trader, a Hong Kong flagged bulk carrier under charter to an Indonesian concern, was loading bauxite from a mine on UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rennell Island last month when Cyclone Oma pushed it aground on a coral reef.

Tourism Solomons chief executive, Josefa ‘Jo’ Tuamoto yesterday expressed “grave concern” over the impact of the oil spillage on the local community and its potential to damage the country’s tourism fortunes.

Tuamoto says about 75 tonnes of oil is believed to have leaked into the ocean “but we understand all efforts are being made to contain the hundreds of litres still aboard the Solomon Trader”.

The 225-metre ship is reported to have been carrying 600 tonnes of oil and a load of bauxite, the main rock used to make aluminium.

Coconut crab, Rennell Island

The Guardian quoted Australia’s high commissioner to the Solomon Islands, Roderick Brazier, calling the spill an “ecological disaster”. The paper said children living near the spill have been told not to swim in the sea and fishing in the area has been banned for the foreseeable future. Without fishing, the villagers have to rely on deliveries from Honiara, the capital, 240 kilometres away

While praising Australia and New Zealand’s swift response to calls for help to minimise the impact of the environmental, Tuamoto fears that if the damage is not contained soon, damage to this pristine part of the world will be irreversible.

“We are beyond grateful at the quick action of our Australian and New Zealand friends to try and minimise what has the potential to become a major ecological disaster,” Tuamoto said.

“But we hold grave concerns for the local community and for the damage already done to their homes and livelihoods.

Rennell Island scene

“Add to this the economic impact this disaster potentially holds for the country – international divers make up a large percentage of the 28,000 international visitors we host every year and this situation even now could act as a strong deterrent to their coming.

“With tourism – and particularly dive tourism – growing in importance as a key economical driver for the Solomon Islands, this situation obviously holds great concern for us.

“To lose even a part of this much valued source of international visitation would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and pray that it can be resolved with minimum environmental impact as quickly as possible.”

Tattooed women of Rennell Island, an etching from 1911

A team from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and New Zealand oil-spill containment specialists arrived on Rennell Island last week.

Rennell Island was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1998 and is the second-largest raised coral atoll in the world (after Lifou in the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia). Rennell Island also has the largest lake of any Pacific island (Lake Tegano) which listed as a World Heritage site.

The oil leak poses a major threat to the island, inhabited by 1200 people and located in the southernmost tip of the 992-island archipelago that’s home to many unique marine species. The Solomon Islands is renowned as one of the world’s foremost dive locations.

Just last December, the Solomon Islands was named one of the world’s top 10 dive destination’s in the prestigious annual ‘Dive Travel Awards’ conducted by the world’s largest dive publication, British-based Dive Magazine UK.

The destination’s 992 islands and unspoilt coral reefs literally teem with huge numbers and unique varieties of marine life.

Add to this the dozens of World War II shipwrecks and downed aircraft that litter the seabed, so much so that one area near the country’s capital Honiara has been renamed ‘Iron Bottom Sound’.

Written by Peter Needham

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