The Solomon Islands–an idyllic 1,000-island archipelago just northeast of Australia–is about as picturesque as surf destinations come. North and south-facing reef passes produce world-class waves, the water is crystal clear and, if you’re lucky, you could surf a week without ever running into a crowd. But as paradisal as the region may look at a glance, the Solomon Islands’ geographic location has made the country vulnerable to devastating tsunamis, earthquakes and coastal erosion (the latter due to extremely fast rates of sea level rise). And unfortunately, the country now has another environmental concern on its hands.
On February 5, during Cyclone Oma, a ship carrying 770 tons of heavy fuel ran aground on Rennell Island–one of the country’s most southern islands and, according to UNESCO, the largest coral atoll in the world. At some point since then, oil has been spilling from the cargo ship at a worrying speed and has now spread along more than 3 miles of coastline, creeping closer and closer to the World Heritage site of East Rennell located just a short distance from the marooned ship. Over 75 tons of oil has seeped into surrounding waters and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates that there’s a high risk of the remaining hundreds of tons doing the same.
As you can imagine, the leakage hasn’t resulted in anything positive for the island’s local population. According to the Guardian, “a thick oily blanket of tar covers the surface of the water and coats beaches, rockpools, logs and leaves,” and dead fish are seen floating in the nearby bay. Children have been warned not to swim in the ocean and fishing has been banned for the time being–a huge hit to many local people who rely on the fishing sector for food and employment. The gross slick has also penetrated coastal drinking wells, driving residents to drink collected rainwater. Some people have even been burned from the oil in an attempt to clean up the mess.
And what’s being done to stop the leakage you ask? Apparently not much. The ship, named the Solomon Trader, is owned by South Express Ltd, a Hong Kong-based shipping and charter company. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia has been putting pressure on its owner and various other companies involved to take responsibility for the spill. So far the ship’s insurer (a South Korean firm named Korea P&I) has disposed a salvage crew, but the spill only continues to worsen.