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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

When Coral Reefs Lose a Boxing Match

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This past Sunday, the one to really get knocked out during Filipino Manny Pacquiao and American Shane Mosley’s boxing match was an area of coral reef in the southern Philippines. There, international media report that a Panamanian-registered cargo ship bearing 65,000 tons of coal from Australia to India ran aground in the Sarangani Bay, crushing a large section of reef. According to Philippine news sources, local officials have started rumors that the M/V Double Prosperity’s mostly Filipino crew was deviating from course into shallow waters to get better satellite signal and TV reception of that day’s boxing match between Pacquiao and Mosley.

“I have a feeling they sailed close to the shore to watch the fight,” Sarangani Governor Miguel Dominguez speculated to the media a few days after the incident.

While the damaged corals, located in a marine sanctuary, were supposed to be protected, perhaps they should have learned to bob and weave after witnessing another coral reef’s bad luck.

MV Shen Neng grounded and spilling fuel oil on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010

M/V Shen Neng 1 grounded and spilling fuel oil on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010. The milky plume in the water is pulverized coral. Photo courtesy of Maritime Safety Queensland.

Last April, the Great Barrier Reef received an even worse black eye when another ship carrying Australian coal, the Chinese M/V Shen Neng 1, grounded itself on the famous reef, spilling between three and four tons of heavy fuel oil and oiling nearly two-thirds of a mile of Queensland shoreline. The main cause of the Shen Neng 1’s grounding wasn’t a crew of boxing fans, but rather, an overly sleepy pilot, which is reported to be a key safety risk at sea.

When something like this happens in U.S. waters, Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) staff are called in to figure out how coral reefs have been damaged and to make science-based recommendations for restoring that habitat. For both of the cases mentioned here, the real threat to the environment wasn’t from potentially spilling the ships’ fuel; it was from smashing the sensitive coral reefs below the surface.

As the ships plow into the reefs, they create what is known as a “grounding scar,” that in the case of the Shen Neng 1, was several miles long and crushed hundreds of acres of corals.  The milky white sediment plume you can see around the vessel in the above photo is pulverized coral. In addition to corals being directly toppled and crushed, the resulting rubble can continue to scour and smother the adjacent undamaged corals, delivering a double blow to the ecosystem.

For example, in the center of the below photo, you can see a debris pile composed of crushed coral. The left side of the photo shows undamaged coral reef, and the barren area to the right reveals the improvised highway the vessel scraped across the reef.  These unstable and barren areas may take generations to recover as baby corals lack a stable place to attach to and form a new reef.

Coral reef damaged by the Margara oil tanker grounding in Puerto Rico in April 2006

Coral reef damaged (right) by the Margara oil tanker grounding in Puerto Rico in April 2006. Credit: NOAA

Once a ship is stranded, the damage to corals is not over. Other concerns include scraping toxic paint from the ship’s bottom, discharging ballast water and cargo to lighten the ship, and additional reef-crushing as the swells and wind move the ship and as salvage vessels work to free the stricken vessel. In some cases, even the iron from the ship can harm the reef.

The bottom line is that sometimes an oil spill is only one of many environmental problems that can result from a shipping accident. Some things can be done to restore the reef, but recovery will still be slow. OR&R works to minimize those environmental impacts and develop restoration alternatives.  If you’re interested in how OR&R and NOAA address coral injuries, take a closer look at these two cases in Maitland, Fla., and Cape Flattery, Hawaii.  And if you’re a boxing champ, we know a couple coral reefs that could use some lessons in defense.

Doug Helton contributed to this post.

Author: Ashley Braun

Ashley Braun is the Web Editor for NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). She keeps typos, unruly sentences, and as much government-ese and geekspeak as possible off of OR&R's web pages and social media. She's also the mayor, sheriff, and cheerleader for this blog.

4 thoughts on “When Coral Reefs Lose a Boxing Match

  1. What a sad tale. And it sounds like the boxing match wasn’t even that good! Thanks for an informative and entertaining introduction to causes and consequences of ship groundings.

  2. I personally dived on the Margara sit shortly after the grounding. The grounding not only took out the corals as seen in this picture (The actual area being much larger which you cannot see with just one photo). Additionally, the bottom of the wiped out area was covered with anti-fouling paint. Working with a local non-profit and governement officials, as an International NGO we developed a non-profit rapid response plan to clean up the paint and quickly restore the lost protective void space that corals provide to the animals that live on reefs using Reef Ball artificial reef technologies that have been used successfully in over 5,000 projects in 70 countries. Unfortunately, federal regulations and our legal system prevented any immediate restoration effort (as occurs at most ship grounding sites within US waters) forcing any restoration efforts to be less effective and many times more expensive. My question is why doesn’t NOAA consider using public non-profit organizations in a more integrated way so that the consequences of ship grounds and other injuries to coral reefs can be addressed more quickly and more effectively without spending so much taxpayer money?

    • Thanks for your insight into this matter, Todd, as well as for your question. In the case of many such ship groundings, the responsible party is liable for the full cost of appropriate assessment and restoration, as determined by the natural resource trustees (e.g., NOAA and Puerto Rico). Emergency restoration began within weeks of the Margara incident, and all of the costs of restoration to date at this site have been and will continue to be the responsibility of the vessel owner and not the taxpayer. (The policy is: You break it, you buy it!)

      For smaller incidents where no viable responsible parties exist, NOAA often partners with local organizations and firms to implement emergency restoration and stabilization activities. We are also looking to more fully develop opportunities for local volunteers and NGO’s to engage in the process within the boundaries of the existing laws. Thanks again for your work and thoughts on this!

      • First of all, thank you very much for your kind response.

        oOwever, my personal (not corporate) opinion was the the restoration at Margara was not very effective in terms of the costs or the repair to the coral reef. And although I agree 100% with a “break it you buy it rule”…there should also be a government responsibility to do the most cost effective job because there are never enough funds for a full restoration. [LET ME REPEAT THAT... THERE ARE NEVER ENOUGH FUNDS FOR A COMPLETE RESTORATION] Therefore, any inefficiencies translate to responsible parties going bankrupt (turning it into a now viable responsible party project) OR less actual restoration work than is needed. Government…with all it’s good aims is also not so good at being efficient….and I mean no disrespect, that’s just the way it works, I think most will agree with that statement…. I am most concerned on this, regardless of the current laws, because the ocean is a public resource and coral reefs are one of the most valuable of public resources and at least for coral reefs, restoration can’t wait for red tape to be the most effective. This is not a complaint, it is a challenge for NOAA to rethink it’s approaches in a time when government funding is ever tightening.

        NOAA might also do well to focus more on prevention…working with enforcement, policies and the like to prevent the need for a restoration…..that particular area had several (probably preventable) groundings over the years. I was told, but cannot confirm, that the boat captain of the Margara did not even have a working GPS on board and tried to enter the port area by dead reckoning, did we not learn from the Exxon spill?

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