Endangered species 'at risk' following Christmas Island spill

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Concerns are rising in Australia for a number of endangered species after a bulk carrier ship ran aground on Christmas Island, releasing oil and phosphate into the surrounding waters.

A stretch of beach 60m long has been affected by the spill and environmentalists are worried about the welfare of a number of animals including whale sharks, coral, 17 species of endemic land crab and at least two varieties of birds.

The 78m Panamanian-flagged 'MV Tycoon' was being loaded with phosphate fertiliser in Flying Fish Cove when it broke from its mooring on Sunday. The crew were safely evacuated but weather conditions were so bad that it soon broke in half and began to sink.

The Australian Maritime Safety Association has estimated that about 102 tonnes of intermediate fuel oil, 11,000 l. of lubricant oil, 32 tonnes of diesel oil and approximately 260 tonnes of phosphate were on board the vessel and that the majority of this will have been released into the sea.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Toby Stone said: "The bad news is that there could be no containment operation because of the very severe swell and weather conditions.

"But, there's a positive side to that; the bad weather has helped to break up and disperse a lot of the oil naturally."

However, Conservation Council of WA environmental science and policy coordinator Nic Dunlop who used to live on the island is concerned that January is a critical time in the biological cycles of many of the species there. Any land crabs returning to shore after spawning will face a coastline contaminated by oils and phosphate. Today has seen some red crabs start to come ashore which is a good sign but he is also worried that the whale sharks may suffer too:

"The whale sharks come to Christmas Island specifically to feed on the land crab larvae and they could be ingesting contaminates in the process of foraging. They are particularly at risk from this event."

A marine casualty coordinator and pollution expert has been brought in to assess the damage but currently everything is on hold until the weather improves. Meanwhile, islanders remain concerned that food supplies may not be able to reach the island and that their tourism may be affected. A number have already offered their help when the clean-up finally gets under way.

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