Tobago Spill Becoming An International Emergency

(TRINIDAD EXPRESS) – The mysterious overturned ‘Gulfstream’ a vessel off the coast of Canoe Bay in Tobago, is destroying some parts of the island’s lesser-known Flying Coral Reef, while the oil-like substance continues to seep from its wreckage, covering nearby waters.

The Tobago House of Assembly expects that the disaster’s scale will be moved to a tier three in the upcoming days, engaging international attention as much of the country prepares for Carnival celebrations next week.

Affected industries were asked to await the findings of the country’s investigative efforts while the substance from the leakage has reached the shoreline.

Teams have been dispatched to assist in clean-up operations, but the cause of the vessel’s overturning has not yet been determined.

Tobago Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) Director Allan Stewart told the Express yesterday that authorities had determined the name of the vessel to be ‘Gulfstream,’- but are still attempting to pinpoint its origin. Searches were ongoing for its registration number, he said.

A release from the TEMA yesterday further noted that the vessel was estimated to be approximately 330 feet in length. The Agency said the vessel may have been carrying lumber and sand. The superstructure of the vessel, it said, detached from the ship and may lie in the debris field.

The Agency said there has this far been no visible sign of human life or remains on the vessel. Samples of the oil-like substance observed in the leakage have been collected by the Environmental Management Authority for further testing, it said.

At a news conference on Thursday, THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine noted the serious impact of the vessel and its leakage, acknowledging that the vessel had been ‘grinding,’ on the corals within the nearby reef.

He said it was likely that species of marine life had been impacted by the spill.

“Some species will be affected, lobsters and so on. I can tell you from what we have seen underwater footage, we have seen the ship essentially create a wave through the reef. Where the ship itself settles with the currents dragging the ship through the reef so we are seeing that clear pathway, where the ship is grinding on the coral reef and destroying parts of the coral reef where it is currently lodged,” he said.

He said the Ministry of Works and Transport has been asked to assist in the removal of the vessel from the waters.

Augustine apologised to the affected industries but stated that conversations surrounding potential compensation would have to be done after the country’s clean up and containment efforts were done.

He said a serious conversation surrounding maritime security is to be had.

“We have to have some serious conversations about the management of our maritime space and monitoring of our maritime space around the clock, but I do not think now is the appropriate time for that conversation because we have as partners in the room right now the coast guard among others. We will have that conversation subsequently. This is certainly a serious issue, and it will take some doing to clean up what we have here,” he said.

Coast Guard officers, Augustine said, were preparing to dive into the waters near the vessel on Wednesday but could not do so as the area surrounding the ship had been deemed dangerous at that time.

However, he said that the authorities were closer to identifying the vessel. Speaking of the elevation of the threat levels, he said, the disaster currently requires national attention but may within the coming hours, extend beyond the national scope.

“We anticipate pretty soon it may advance to their three which means we will have to get the requisite international partners to assist…given some of things we are seeing at the moment and can’t disclose right now,” he said.

He said that sargassum in the waters had acted as a natural absorbent for the crude oil. Contaminated sargassum, he added, has been removed and stored in a sealed containment area.

Offshore and nearshore absorbent booms, he said, were deployed while the Ministry of Energy, the Environmental Management Authority, the Institute of Marine Affairs, the Coast Guard and the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) were on site.

On Wednesday Tobago Authorities received reports of the overturned vessel but its North Post Radio did not receive any distress calls from the vessel. The Coast Guard and other agencies were engaged to investigate the incident.

The spill has been estimated to be extensive, reaching the shores of Lambeau and other areas.

Fisherfolk and beach goers have been advised to stay clear of the area extending from Rockly Bay to Canoe Bay.