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.
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.
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.