Oil spill reaches Singapore’s southern islands, sparking concerns over corals weakened from bleaching

A kingfisher (left) and mangroves on St John's Island covered with oil. - PHOTOS: SAMUEL PUA, ST JOHN'S ISLAND NATIONAL MARINE LABORATORY via The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN): Oil leaking from a damaged cargo tank at Pasir Panjang Terminal reached the marine habitats on Singapore’s southern islands on the morning of June 15, with members of the marine conservation and recreation community reporting sightings of marine habitats and creatures – including mangroves and a kingfisher – slicked in oil.

The fishing and yachting community is on alert for fish deaths over the next few days, while marine biologists fear how Singapore’s corals will fare amid the spill.

This is especially since the Republic’s coral reefs are still in a weakened state due to the ongoing bleaching event caused by rising sea surface temperatures.

Mr Ahmed Aliyar, an administrative manager at the St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory (SJINML), told The Straits Times that he first saw oil clinging to the mangroves next to St John’s Island’s main jetty at about 8.45 am on June 15.

“I was in the ferry heading to St John’s from Marina South Pier this morning. The sea was covered with oil and trash and there was a strong crude oil smell in the air,” he added.

Later, as he made his rounds around the island, he also saw an oily sheen covering the lagoons and coastal areas around St John’s and the adjacent Lazarus Island.

The spill was caused by a collision at about 2.20pm on June 14 between a Netherlands-flagged dredging boat Vox Maxima and the Singapore-flagged bunker vessel Marine Honour, which was stationary.

Oil slicks seen at various sites across St John’s and Lazarus Islands. - PHOTOS: ST JOHN’S ISLAND NATIONAL MARINE LABORATORYOil slicks seen at various sites across St John’s and Lazarus Islands. - PHOTOS: ST JOHN’S ISLAND NATIONAL MARINE LABORATORY

The damaged cargo tank on Marine Honour – which was next to a container vessel berthed at Pasir Panjang Terminal – leaked oil into the sea.

Dr Jani Tanzil, a coral reef scientist and facility director of the SJINML, said that when staff left the island at about 5pm on June 14, the oil had not yet reached the island.

The spill comes about a month after Singapore announced plans to designate its second marine park – which will comprise the southern part of Lazarus Island and the reef off Kusu Island – in its southern waters.

Parts of Singapore’s first marine park – the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park – were also affected by the spill, with rocky shores at St John’s Island’s western end reportedly coated in oil.

Dr Tanzil said plans are being made among the Friends of Marine Park community – including marine scientists, boaters and ocean-dependent business owners – to survey the shores around St John’s and Lazarus Islands on June 16 to document the oil slicks and impact on marine life.

The intertidal area refers to the zone that is exposed to air at low tide, and covered by seawater at high tide. When the tide recedes and exposes the corals to air, it is likely that the oil will coat the exposed corals, said Dr Tanzil.

“The oil is toxic and can smother them the same way it impacts other marine life,” she said. “So with the ongoing coral bleaching which is also affecting more of the shallower corals, it is a double whammy that can affect their recovery.”

Asked about the impact of the oil spill on the deeper corals, Dr Tanzil said it depends on a number of factors. Oil on the surface could block out light needed for corals to photosynthesise, so it depends on how long it takes for it to be removed.

The type of dispersants used in the clean-up could also have an impact, she said, as studies have shown that certain types of chemicals could change the density of the hydrocarbons in the oil and cause them to sink.

Oil slicks seen at various sites across St John’s and Lazarus Islands. - PHOTO: ST JOHN’S ISLAND NATIONAL MARINE LABORATORYOil slicks seen at various sites across St John’s and Lazarus Islands. - PHOTO: ST JOHN’S ISLAND NATIONAL MARINE LABORATORY

“If this happens, it can affect the sub-tidal corals too,” she said.

“I am just thankful that this did not happen during the mass coral spawning period,” Dr Tanzil said, referring to the yearly event where hard corals release their sperms and eggs en-masse to reproduce. This year’s spawning event took place at the end of April 2024.

“If it did, then all this oil and dispersants will definitely affect the coral spawn and larvae. Some studies have shown that oil does adversely affect coral growth rates and reproductive rates,” she added.

Meanwhile, Mr N. Sivasothi, a mangrove expert at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: “It’s upsetting that this incident involving a stationary vessel could happen in the daytime.”

The impact of the spill on the mangrove habitats depend on oil types and volume, he added.

“It could impact vegetative structures such as roots, stems and leaves; disrupt reproduction and affect wildlife, especially aquatic species lower in the food chain which could be poisoned or suffocated,” he said.

Ms Sue Ye, founder of Marine Stewards – a marine conservation non-government organisation comprising anglers, divers and boaters – said oil spills smother and suffocate fish, birds and marine animals that have to go to the surface for air, such as turtles and dolphins.

The group is also on the lookout for fish deaths over the next few days, she added.

Ms Ye said that one of the group’s members, Mr Samuel Pua, spotted a kingfisher coated in oil at Lazarus Island on the morning of June 15.

“He said the kingfisher wasn’t able to fly, though it tried. He tried to get close to rescue it, but it jumped away. Didn’t chase further because if it jumped backwards more, it’ll be in a pool of oil,” she said.

The Straits Times has reached out to NParks for comment. - The Straits Times/ANN

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Singapore , Shores , Oil Slick


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