Coelacanths survived meteors but may not survive oil
Oil exploration off the KZN coastline threatens the tiny population of ancient fish species
SA is one of a handful of countries that protects the coelacanth – a truly ancient fish species that has remained largely unchanged for nearly 420 million years.
Fossil records show that coelacanths evolved about 170 million years before dinosaurs and then survived the great extinction event that wiped dinosaurs from the face of the Earth about 65 million years ago.
Quite remarkably, despite the increasing threats to marine life across the globe, there are at least 32 of these large, blue fish still living and breeding off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Scientists say they are the most southerly colony of a critically-endangered species which is also found in small numbers along the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. Elsewhere, the only other place where coelacanths are known to exist is off the islands of Sulawesi, Indonesia.
The tiny South African population was only discovered 18 years ago by divers exploring the underwater canyons near Sodwana Bay, part of the narrow strip of protected ocean in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and World Heritage Site.But over the last few years the Petroleum Agency of South Africa has advertised the vast majority of the country’s 370km-wide ocean territory for oil and gas exploration. This recent push to exploit the ocean for petroleum – along with minerals, fish and other marine riches – comes at a time when only 0.4% of the country’s territorial waters are currently zoned as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
And next year, the Italian energy group Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (Eni) hopes to start drilling the first of six deep-water oil exploration wells in exploration block ER 236 off the KZN coastline. Eni says recent improvements in exploration technology will allow the company to drill to much deeper depths off SA than was possible previously – in this case at least 5km below the sea surface.
But what might happen if Eni strikes oil off KZN, and what could that mean for the future of coelacanths if there were a major leak or underwater oil blowout deep below the sea surface?
Andrew Venter, CEO of the WildTrust conservation group, is worried that a major oil spill could spell disaster for the coelacanths and also cause harm to a multitude of less emblematic marine species.
While the first Eni drilling sites are 200km south of Sodwana, the northern boundary of the company’s larger oil exploration zone is just 40km away from the coelacanths and marine conservation groups worry that oil spills can spread out swiftly to pollute very large areas of the adjoining sea.“The Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 wiped out entire fish populations – so if we had an oil spill off iSimangaliso it is very likely it could wipe out the coelacanths,” says Venter.
Venter is also worried that oil spills threaten other existing or proposed Marine Protected Areas further south, including the uThukela, Aliwal and Protea Banks MPAs.
“Of note is the presence of underwater canyons in the Protea Banks which are also suspected to have coelacanths in them. A major concern is that even before we know exactly how many coelacanths exist and we get to learn more about them, should an oil spill catastrophe off iSimangaliso occur, the shallowest population that we know of could be exterminated,” said Venter.
Coelacanth expert Professor Mike Bruton has also cautioned against drilling oil wells in the vicinity of the KZN coelacanths. He says the Indian Ocean coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae, is a specialised animal that has relatively narrow environmental tolerances and is sensitive to environmental perturbations.
“They are particularly sensitive to water temperature, light intensity and oxygen saturation levels ... Anything that interferes with their ability to absorb oxygen, such as oil pollution, would threaten their survival,” he said, noting that coelacanths have the lowest known haemoglobin count in their blood of any vertebrate and the lowest gill surface ratio of any fish.“The risk of oil spills or blowouts during exploration or possible future commercial production of oil in block ER236 in northern Zululand is a source of serious concern, and the risk needs to be carefully evaluated before this commercial venture has progressed too far and it is too late ... Oil spills do not respect the boundaries of marine protected areas, as has been found previously in several parts of the world,” Bruton warned.
Eni, however, argues that “no specific threat” to the marine ecology has been identified during an environmental impact assessment (EIA) currently underway.
A scoping report on the Eni proposal by environment consultants ERM suggests it is unlikely that any coelacanth colonies are present in the deep water exploration zone targeted for the first test drills.
Responding to the concerns about the potential destruction of the Sodwana coelacanths, a spokesman for Eni said the company was committed to “the highest operational and environmental standards, which often exceed local compliance regulations”.
“Prior to any operation we undertake sensitivity mapping to identify sensitive offshore marine habitat which guide our planning. In addition to this, Eni would comply with all the requirements of the EMP (Environmental Management Programme) which is based on the outcomes of the impact assessment.”
While not directly involved in the exploration drilling, Sasol also has a joint commercial interest in the exploration area with Eni.
“The ER236 exploration licence is a partnership between Sasol and Eni. Our objective is to find hydrocarbons that we could use to feed into South Africa’s energy mix,” the company said.
The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) said: “The EIA process for the proposed well drilling off the East Coast is still in progress. The process will identify and assess the potential impacts of the proposed drilling on the marine environment. DMR as the competent authority, will consider the outcomes of the EIA process when making the decision on whether to authorise the proposed activity or not.”