- Toxic waste from a ship which went down off the coast in southern Madagascar in August has had severe impacts on the health of local people and on the rich coastal and marine environment, according to a new study.
The Turkish vessel 'Gulser Ana' grounded near Faux Cap in the very south of Madagascar. The ship carried 39,000 tonnes of raw phosphates, 568 tonnes of fuel, 66 tonnes of diesel and 8000 litres of lubricant, most of which was slowly released into the Indian Ocean. The accident occurred in a whale reproduction and migratory corridor zone during the migratory season.
The new study into the shipwreck's contamination, co-funded by the environmentalist group WWF, was prepared by an interdisciplinary team of eight scientists, which went to Faux Cap shortly after the accident.
While one to three whales normally beach in the area each year, nine whales had beached in September alone, and some beach stretches seemed to be real death zones, the report found. Villagers were reported to suffer from diseases such as respiratory problems, skin diseases and diarrhoea.
"WWF is very concerned about the possible negative impacts on biodiversity especially marine and coastal species, the threats to the ecosystems and the loss of people's livelihood options. That is why we decided to fund this mission," said Harifidy Olivier Ralison of WWF.
Oil clumps cover the beach 30 km to the east and even further to the west of the shipwreck. People who were hired to clean up the area reportedly were not equipped properly and lacked clothes protecting them. The collected oil clumps land in plastic bags on the beach where they are likely to burst and cause further damage, the report found.
Almost half the 40,000 people in the area had been "affected by consequences of the shipwreck," the study found, with a key impact being the banning of fishing for three months. Some 25 to 40 percent of the inhabitants depend on fishery as their source of income.
The impacts on marine species was also said to be tragic. "Whales suffer from respiratory problems due to diesel odour. They come to the surface from time to time to breathe, so if they happen to surface through an oil film, this might result in the animal's death," marine mammal specialist said Yvette Razafindrakoto of World Conservation Society (WCS).
Although raw phosphate is not poisonous, a huge amount of it being suddenly released into the ocean was seen as "problematic." The expert team found signs of eutrophication in front of the shipwreck. "Phosphate acts like fertilizer, which leads to an extensive algal bloom. This depletes the oxygen in the surrounding marine environment and could cause the disappearance of species such as fish and molluscs," said Mr Ralison.
Some common species of sand crabs were also only found sporadically and other species, such as various gastropods contained a very high amount of heavy metal, which is connected to higher mortality.
"There are signs that the food chain in the area around Faux Cap is severely harmed," the report concludes. "What this means for the coastal ecosystem and the villagers on the contaminated beaches can only be definitively estimated after the passage of some years."
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