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Could take months to measure full impact of fuel spill: Expert

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – It has been a week since a freighter spilled fuel into English Bay, leading to sticky sludge washing up on many local beaches, but ocean pollution researchers say it could take months or even years to measure the potential damage to marine life below the surface.

“We’ve certainly seen lingering evidence of oil and spotty fouling of beaches, along with a handful of waterfowl that have been oiled, but we don’t have a good sense as to what the impacts might be under the surface of the ocean, nor do we have a sense of how much oil might have sunk because of this accident,” says Dr. Peter Ross, director of the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium.

He believes it could takes months, possibly years, of monitoring to get an indication of the long term impacts of the bunker fuel spill, and we may never know how much has drifted down to the ocean floor.

“The ‘black hole’ for us is how much has sunk beneath the surface. To get at the answer to that is a little bit challenging because this oil isn’t dissolving like a coloured dye in a glass of water. What we are going to see is suspended droplets and tarballs moving around the bottom and it’s going to be very, very patchy,” explains Ross.

He says a number of species are likely to be at risk for exposure and uptake, and researchers need to pick a few ‘canaries in the coal mine’ to monitor how the bunker fuel is taken up over time.

“We are on the lookout for the more visible, more charismatic creatures [such as seals, sea otters and waterfowl] which we can take in for rehabilitation and release, but some of the species that are going to be more adept at giving us good scientific insight into what is going on would include shellfish that are filtering hundreds of litres of water a day and are likely to be taking up little particles or droplets of hydrocarbons over time.”

Scavengers like Dungeness crab and flatfish such as English sole will also be important species to study, along with sediments on the ocean floor, which Ross calls “the ultimate sink” for a lot of different pollutants around the city.

However, that will take cooperation with other agencies and Ross believes the Aquarium’s expertise has to play an important role in making sure the long term response to the spill is “defensible, relevant and meaningful.”