11 Beaches Closed in Hong Kong After 9,000-Ton Palm Oil Spill
More than 9,000 tons of palm oil leaked from a cargo ship after a collision in mainland Chinese waters last week, prompting the closure of at least 11 beaches in Hong Kong, sightings of dead fish washing up on beaches and reports of rancid odors wafting from the rotting, congealed mess.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the collision occurred on Thursday but mainland authorities waited until Saturday to report the incident. Hong Kong residents only learned of the spill on Sunday because of the beach closures.
Environmental experts are questioning why the notification was delayed by two days.
"For some marine life, two days could be too late," Dr. Tsang Po-keung, an associate professor of science and environmental studies at the Education University of Hong Kong and a member of the government's Advisory Council on the Environment, told SCMP.
Palm oil is an edible form of vegetable oil that comes from pulping the fruit of oil palms. The product is found in everything from ice cream and crackers to detergents and cosmetics. But production of the ubiquitous oil is also known as one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction and among the biggest threats to iconic wildlife species, such as the Sumatran orangutan.
Gary Stokes of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society explained that the palm oil spill in Hong Kong is not hazardous to humans, but the bacteria-laden globules could be harmful to dogs if swallowed.
The start of a red tide event mixed with palm oil, a cocktail that we certainly do not need. Raw palm oil chunks that have been washing up on HK shorelines after a collision in the Pearl River Delta caused a spill of allegedly 9,000+ tons of raw palm oil. Gary Stokes / ©Sea Shepherd Global
The long-term ecological consequences could also be troublesome. While the substance will break down over the next few days, it is "a magnet to bacteria," Stokes wrote on Facebook Sunday.
"Problem will be that it will remove oxygen from waters as it breaks down in much the same way as red tide so a big threat to fish and other marine life," he pointed out.
In another post today, Stokes detailed how the leak could affect the larger food chain:
"Red tide events do happen, and are brushed off as "natural" yet these events occur when extra "nutrients" (sewage) are in the water. Adding palm oil to this cocktail that we call HK Waters begs to question what the outcome will be. What we can guarantee is that it's not going to be good for the marine life or environment. Small fish eating raw palm oil, seabirds and dolphins/porpoise eating the small fish as well as the bigger fish that will be eaten by humans. Good time to become a vegetarian/vegan."
Conservationist Robert Lockyer, a resident of Hong Kong's Lamma Island, told the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) that the leak caused the surrounding beaches to look like winter came early as the white, sticky blobs clung to shorelines.
"Just looking at Yung Shue Wan: if this was winter time, you would say that it had snowed. The beach is white. All the sand and all the rocks are covered in white balls of oil. The oil that's out there on the sea has melted, forming a slick on the ocean," he said.
Clumps of palm oil litters Hong Kong beach after spill. Andy Stokes
Lockyer also expressed concerns about the spill's risks to marine life.
"The oil floating on top of the water is reducing [the] oxygen absorption of fish, meaning that more are dying than usual," he said. "Another concern is about the birds: herons and other water birds that dive into the water to catch fish. If they get stuck in the oil, or it coats their wings, these birds may end up drowning."
Cleaning up the mess appears to be a daunting task. Lockyer told HKFP that government workers are struggling to clear the beaches.
"They have been out in 35+ deg heat with shovels and bags cleaning Nga Kau Wan Beach," Lockyer wrote on Facebook today. "All these workers for two days and yet still only cleaned about 10% of this one beach."
"Tomorrow we need as many people as we can to attend Nga Kua Wan Beach on west Lamma, locally known as Tannery Beach. There is still tonnes of it, 80% of the beach still needs cleaning," he added.
Several local organizations have since organized ongoing cleanup operations.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Tuesday saying that the Federal Environmental Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the fracked gas Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs more than 500 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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