Oil doom

A massive oil spill in Japan spells danger for marine life in Tokyo Bay

 
Published: Thursday 31 July 1997

in the worst ever oil spill disaster in Japan, a huge oil tanker ran aground near the port of Yokohama on July 2, creating a 66.5-sq km oil slick in Tokyo Bay. The tanker Diamond Grace was carrying 300,000 kilolitres (kl) of crude oil when it hit a well-marked shoal about six km southeast of the port and spilled out nearly 14,000 kl of oil, raising fears about adverse impact on the ecology of Tokyo Bay.

The Bay has the country's only non-artificial tideland called Sanbanse, which is home to clams, lugworms, crabs and other marine creatures. It is a resting and feeding ground for thousands of wild birds, such as common cormorants, terns and black-tailed gulls. The slick is twice the size and amount of the oil spill that occurred in January this year in the Sea of Japan off the Shimane Prefecture. A Russian tanker Nakhodka broke in half and sank, damaging coastal ecology and wildlife.

According to Harutaka Takubo, who heads a group of environmentalists for tideland preservation, the entire ecosystem of Sanbanse will be affected if the oil spill damages diatoms (algae), sea strings and other seaweeds. He was particularly concerned about the terns, rare wild birds found in limited parts around the Bay. The Bay is also a rich fishing ground for fisherfolk who annually catch some 20,000 tonne of fish including flounders, ark shells and sea urchins.

The Environment Agency of Japan plans to examine the effect of the spill on fish and other marine creatures. Agency officials said chemicals used to dispose of the oil could spread into the seawater or stay on the seabed for some time. They would monitor the situation closely to study any possible long-term influence of the chemicals on marine life. The Agency was also expected to discuss measures for the protection of wild birds with the Wild Bird Society of Japan and other citizen's groups.

Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has declared the oil spill a national disaster. More than 100 vessels were dispatched to collect the oil. Rescue operations were hampered by strong southwesterly winds which were pushing the oil slick towards downtown Tokyo. The Maritime Disaster Prevention Centre in Tokyo has sounded a public warning as the spilled oil contains 25.5 per cent gasoline, considered highly volatile.

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