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Oct 29, 2009

Will Timor Sea oil slick be curtains for bluefin tuna?

The already-devastated Southern bluefin tuna population could be sunk for good by the recent Montara oil spill.


Could the already-decimated Southern bluefin tuna population be about to be devastated for good by the Montara oil spill? Crikey’s crack graphics department has uncovered some eerie parallels between the slick’s current satellite status and the spawning zone for the prized high-value fish, which this week had its Australian quota cut by 25% amid tumbling global stocks.

Here’s the latest satellite image of the Montara slick:

And here’s the Southern bluefin tuna’s spawning zone:

According to experts on the ground, with the spawning season for Southern bluefin stretching from September to April, the key question is what is happening to the oil below the surface, and how that might pose a risk to spawning fish.

Gilly Llewellyn from the World Wildlife Fund, who recently returned from the slick zone, told Crikey: “certainly with the perilous status of the Southern bluefin tuna population it would be a huge concern if the slick were to cause additional pressure and risk of recruitment to a population that is literally decimated”.

Any further reduction in the stock is likely to hit smaller fishing operations hardest, who under the new international guidelines are required to reduce their catch by 25%. Bigger operators, whose owners are starting to feature on the nation’s rich lists, can simply pass on any quota reduction to Japanese consumers in the form of higher prices.

Concern has also been raised over other fish species, including the gold band snapper, which has a spawning season of January to April, and the Red Emperor, which is spawning now. Whale sharks, the basis of a multi million dollar tourism industry in WA, are also believed to swimming through the slick zone.

A fourth attempt by Thai company PTTEP to plug the leak has proven unsuccessful, according to a report this morning. There are also reports that oil-affected seaweed is starting to wash up on the Indonesian island of Roti.

Around 400 barrels of oil a day has been leaking into the Timor Sea after the leak sprung nine weeks ago. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has been using dispersants in an attempt to clean-up the spill, but is yet to make much of an impact.

Crikey understands that Greens Senator Rachel Siewert is likely to raise the issue of the slick again today in Parliament.


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24 thoughts on “Will Timor Sea oil slick be curtains for bluefin tuna?

  1. Margi Prideaux

    Finally, someone prepared to join the dots! Thank you Andrew

    I have often wondered how it is that the oil and gas industry is able to maintain the veneers that their operations are worlds best practice in the face of regular spills around the Australian coastline; and that the Government (of each political leaning) persist with the claim that they are responsibly regulating.

    Last week the Government and industry released their joint monitoring programme – a good six weeks after the spill started. Even a cursory read of document reveals how much baseline information has to be gathered, which begs the question why was this not collected before the drilling began?

    There is no mention of monitoring any impacts to Indonesian ecosystems, and not surprising no mention of tuna. The document also makes unsubstantiated statements that impacts of the oil spill on marine animals ‘remain unlikely’.

    The document claims that experts have been consulted, so why then does civil society need to remind policy makers that marine animals can ingest oil-derived toxic compounds either directly from the water or with their food. That poisonous vapor can also be inhaled by whales and dolphins and especially when the volatile components evaporate into the air from freshly spilled oil.

    With anywhere from 10 to 20 million litres of oil spilled into the ocean it is a good bet that there will be chronic longer-term effects of oil entering the food-chain potentially affecting the whole system. Much of this will happen far from sight and if marine animals are killed or otherwise affected – days, months and years into the future – we are unlikely to be witness to this.

    None of this information is particularly ground breaking nor new. We have know most of this information for a few decades. Why then is this not openly admitted? And more to the point why is it that there is minimal public (and media) concern?

  2. jeebus

    In situations like this, the government should force the companies responsible to hire a fleet of ships and mop up the oil from the surface of the ocean. It’s outrageous what they can get away with when pollution is not directly impacting communities of people or cute animals.

  3. Tom McLoughlin

    The oil spill figures are in my judgment greatly under estimated in both the story and the penultimate comment, though the general thrust is to be applauded and all credit to WA Greens senator Siewart in particular:

    Senator Siewart at Estimates October 21 evoked from a Dept of Environment official that the rate of flow from the blowout was 2,000 barrels a day, NOT 400.

    This was so important as industry and govt backgrounded agianst The Greens to Laurie Oakes resulting in national press she was exaggerating back on Sept 4th 2009. But Oakes was wrong. Siewart was vindicated as per the evidence and presser from that Oct 21-22, 2009.

    At 2000 barrels a day we are talking 2000 x 70 days (since August 19th) x 42 US gallons to the barrell, some 5,880,000 gallons of oil spill.

    The Exxon Valdez as quoted by wikipedia was 10.8 million gallons.

    Yesterday early we broadcast to that effect with chronology to all federal and NSW parliament a link explaining how Minister Garrett in particular, and for his master PM Rudd, operating a PR diversion the global scale disaster West Altas/Montara has become. (By the way most of the press via google seem to refer to it as West Altas).

    Refer also last Monday, and Tuesday Crikey and ABC Unleashed for backgrounders on this, with robust string of comments on each.

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    To quote The Greens presser 22 October 2009

    “Yesterday (Wed 21/10/09), under questioning by Greens’ Marine Issues Spokesperson Senator Rachel Siewert, Federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism officials said that PTTEP had given them no basis for their 400-barrels-day figure, and their own calculations based on Geoscience Australia data suggested a rate of around 2,000 barrels-a-day, plus condensate.”

    Notice too News Corp broadsheet The Australian runs this story yesterday showing dissension now in the industry sector on the north west shelf:

    “Industry lashes oil-spill firm
    Nicolas Perpitch | October 28, 2009

    AUSTRALIA’S peak oil and gas body has turned on one of its own, saying established safeguards exist to prevent oil-well blowouts and the disastrous West Atlas spill in the Timor Sea should never have happened. …..[continues]”

  5. Roger Clifton

    There are the makings of a good story here.

    The two images show no connection with each other, the distance between the oil and the spawning zone being as far apart as European countries. Nothing “eerie”about that. If there is a drift, please measure and quote it to your intelligent lay readers.

    You could have asked some experts and then told us what oil does to the seawater just below the surface. For example, are there enough soluble toxic compounds in the slick to threaten fish in the near surface zone?

    If there really are “experts on the ground” in the Timor Sea, we want to know who they are, and what they say about the sensitivities of fish assembling to mate, how tuna spawn in the open ocean and the sensitivity of the spawn itself.

    Who is it that have raised what concern over “other fish species”? I was under the impression that the snapper spawn on the continental slope, far below any oil slick. Whale sharks don’t come up for air and are big enough to dive under and swim past any oil slick, so how would they be affected?

    Similarly, the oilmen’s jargon is useless to us, whereas a quick conversion would tell us that oil is leaking at about 60 kL a day.

    Come on Crikey!

    PS: Er, did you really mean “a multi-million tourism industry in WA”?

  6. vovo

    “Crikey’s crack graphics department…”

    Are you insane? That first satellite image is unreadable!

    Perhaps you meant “Crikey’s graphics department, who along with this article’s author, is on crack,…”

  7. glazedham

    It’s amazing how the fishery has been allowed to get to this dire state in the first place. Very worrying indeed. The shame about the slick, is that it’s in such a remote region. Human tendrils can reach out and spoil areas a long long cooee from anywhere. Good luck depleted tuna spawn! lets hope you are a good Spain span from harms way.

  8. Margi Prideaux

    Roger, careful what you ask for!

    To provide some detail that corroborates Andrew’s piece, I can pass on this information from Mark Simmonds, WDCS International Director of Science:
    “Crude and other oils are mixtures of a great many organic compounds many of which are toxic, and animals can ingest oil-derived compounds either directly from the water or with their food. Poisonous vapours can also be inhaled and especially as the more volatile components evaporate into the air from freshly spilled oil”
    “Regrettably, whales and dolphins are unlikely to avoid oils spills and the more extensive the spill, the greater the encounter rate is likely to be. There will also be chronic effects of oil entering food-chains. Much of this is going to happen far away from the human eye and if marine animals are killed or otherwise affected, we are unlikely to be witness to this. All of this further explains the need to keep fossil fuel plants out of important wildlife areas.”

    And, from AMSA:
    “Oil, depending upon its form and chemistry, causes a range of physiological and toxic effects.
    For example, the low molecular weight aliphatics of oil can have anaesthetic properties and aromatic components such as benzine are known carcinogens and very toxic to humans and wildlife. Some polynuclear aromatics are also carcinogenic and toxic and, are concentrated in the food chain eg. in tissues of water filter feeding shell fish like mussels and oysters.
    … The eggs, larvae and young fish are comparatively sensitive to oil (particularly dispersed oil), as demonstrated in laboratory toxicity tests. … Reports also suggest that some fish species do not avoid oil but are actually attracted to oil because it resembles “floating objects”.”

    While AMSA does not speak to tuna specifically, having worked on tuna issues for many, many years, I can assure you tuna are species that are attracted to floating objects.

    We don’t know how deep the slick is, becasue the information is not being released. We don’t know how much oil has been spilled, becasue the information is not being released. We don’t know what harm the dispersant have done, becasue the information is not being released.

    And, if you are now bored (as I expect you are), perhaps you can reflect then why such information wasn’t part of Andrew’s excellent story!

  9. Andrew Crook

    The spawning zone overlaps the slick Roger.

  10. Andrew Crook

    And Vo Vo, I’m fairly certain the oil slick extent is well marked out in yellow text.

  11. Tom McLoughlin

    The abc PM show tonight says $150 million has been spent already trying and failing to fix the leak. What a disaster. However they quote the company spin of 400 barrels a day, which Dept of Env official on Oct 21 Estimates specifically declined to confirm, rather based on Geo Science Australia assessment preferred 2000 barrels a day.

    ABC TV 7 pm news regretably parroted the 400 barrels figure without noting it was company spin at all.

    Today in the Senate Rachel Siewert MP succeeded in obtaining a motion for the Govt to release relevant documents by November 16 2009. We will find out the truth one way or the other eventually. And the entity with the huge financial conflict of interest being the oil company is not my Melbourne cup bet.

  12. Bullmore's Ghost

    After 4 failed attempts, has it occurred to anybody in authority the PTTEP might not be competent?

    Bloody hell, surely it’s time to fly in some actual expertise!

  13. vovo

    “And Vo Vo, I’m fairly certain the oil slick extent is well marked out in yellow text.”

    Sure, but nothing else is, including the scale, so we really have no context for placing the image in our mental maps. You could at least have linked it to a higher resolution version or the original.

  14. evamary

    What a disaster! Who is responsible for this dreadful situation – Australia, the company, the UN??? How could they even think of drilling at such a depth without having equipment at hand to deal with a leak. And why has the press been singularly mute about it? We know that this amount of oil has to affect marine life. Why isn’t this on the front pages? The helplessness of politicians and agencies to deal with this is almost unbelievable – although environmental protection companies in Australia is not the rule but the exception. What can we expect from Chevron on Barrow Island – and BHP at Yeelirie ?- 150 million tons of radioactive waste for a start.

  15. Vincent O'Donnell

    I’ve been a convervationist since the Colong campaign, but I’m increasingly sick of the clumsy writing that seeks just to talk to the converted rather address issues and win conservation battles.

    ‘Devastated’ and ‘Decimated’… these words are used as blunt weapons by the converted… they are the cliches of the conversation. Check the dictionary. Devastate means destroy… decimate: cut by one in every ten. The words don’t work so don’t use them. They suggest you are just frothing at the mouth.

    Oh yes… oil under the water? Dissolved? Emulsified? Evil little self-propelled globes, remote piloted by Exon execs? What?

    Don’t write to be cheered by the bros. and sisters. Write for an indifferent, even an hostile, audience… the converted are already on board.

    Vincent O’Donnell
    Ascot Vale

  16. Andrew Crook

    Skytruth link there for you now Vo Vo

  17. Tom McLoughlin

    Vincent is grumpy.

    Well this will make you more grumpy champ.

    ABC tv news update adjusted their phrasing after a well aimed email from moi quoting Estimates evidence 21 Oct. Their 9.30 bulletin added in “an estimated 400 barrels a day”.

    But this is still misleading and deceptive based on company spin, not the federal Dept of Env relying on Geo Science Australia assessment of the facts known to date.

    How the ABC can parrot a conflicted company already proven a wrongdoer, and then abandoned in the conservative press by the rest of the industry (The Australian) is an interesting case study in potential ABC bias to a corporation, and to a badly exposed federal ALP environment minister Peter Garrett???

    The Senate call for govt papers is due by Nov 16. The ABC news machine are also under pressure now over the real scale of this disaster. Is it 1/10 the infamous Exxon Valdez or already 1/2 the size of infamous Exxon Valdez? And why would you possibly rely on PTTEP already bleeding 1$150M in costs to fix their f*ck up, when it might be $1B dollar disaster? Or even more?

    Come on ABC, starting quoting the Hansard evidence of October 21st, which was already subject of an ABC report at the time about Oct 21-22. Tsk tsk.

  18. Tom McLoughlin

    Here is the Perth Now web news story Oct 22 based on Geo Science Australia referred to in evidence to Senate Estimates the day before – 2,000 barrels a day, NOT 400 barrels:


  19. Tom McLoughlin

    Here is the abc radio news story of Oct 22 too. So how can SE Australia ABC start quoting the company’s spin unchallenged?:


    This is fast becoming a Media Watch feature.

  20. Tom McLoughlin

    This is the transcript of Hansard 21 October Senate Estimates Economics committee (note Mr Squire is from the Federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism officials) —

    Senator SIEWERT—In terms of the amount of oil that was previously and is now coming out of the well,
    have you had any discussions with the company about what that rate is? They have said publicly what it is, or
    speculated in fact. Have you had a discussion with them about that?

    Mr Squire – There is a figure in the media of 300 to 400 barrels a day. The view of the department is that it
    is difficult without access to the rig to quantify what that rate of flow is.

    Senator SIEWERT—That is significantly different from the production figures that the company itself had
    said would be coming from that well when it was in production.

    Mr Squire—That is correct.

    Senator SIEWERT—I presume through the regulatory process you have been provided with flow data
    from that well and similar wells in the area.

    Mr Squire—You are correct to say that the estimated rate of flow is far less than what the well would be
    producing if it were in production. We certainly do have information about potential flow rates when those
    wells were drilled as production wells.

    Senator SIEWERT—Did you do any calculations yourself on the potential flow rates? Initially there was
    an absence of company advice on what the potential flow rates were. Did you do any calculations yourselves
    to estimate what the flow rates could be?

    Mr Squire—Yes, we did.

    Senator SIEWERT—And what were they?

    Mr Squire—The information that we sought from Geoscience Australia was an estimation of what the rate
    of flow would be if that well was entirely unsealed, for want of a better expression.

    Senator SIEWERT—And what were they? What was that rate?

    Mr Squire—The maximum leakage rate from that well could be as much as 2,000 barrels of oil a day, with
    condensate as well.

    Senator SIEWERT—That is in addition?

    Mr Squire—In addition to oil.

    Senator SIEWERT—Is it possible for you to table the basis on which those figures were calculated?

    Mr Squire—We should be able to provide you information concerning the testing of that well when it was
    drilled as a production well.

    Senator SIEWERT—That would be much appreciated, if you could. In terms of the Timor Sea in general
    and oil and gas exploration and production in the Timor Sea, it has been suggested to me in the past that there
    have been several other potential incidents that never in fact eventuated because there was good contingency
    planning in place. Have those sorts of incidents ever been reported to the department? …….

  21. Tom McLoughlin

    The relevant Estimates Economics Committee 21 October 2009 page E84 at


    It seems to download for me best on explorer not firefox.

  22. Roger Clifton

    Thanks Margi Prideaux for fleshing out the article with technical detail. She raised a further concern by referring to the dispersants, a suite of chemicals which do dissolve in the surface water. If it subdivides oil droplets, we might ask, what does it do to the slime that protects spawn?

    “Once applied the oil particles are then divided and separated forming a readily degradable microscopic emulsion.” from sales info .

    Vincent asked (above) for more depth of info, too, so there are at least a few of us who appreciate good research in articles.

  23. Tom McLoughlin


    The additional leak in the Timor sea, sourced to ABC/NT Govt, is essentially a distraction. Information sourced to the NT Govt and known for many weeks by govt seems designed to suggest ‘see it happens elsewhere, not just West Atlas/Montara, and it’s no big deal’. The continual quotes of ‘only 400 barrels a day’ when the company PTTEP admits themselves there is ‘no scientific basis for measuring the flow rate’, is laughable spin. Along with the helpful link to Chris Uhlmann’s piece same page today’s date ‘in praise of climate sceptics – quoting Karl Poppor – a science philosopher I mentioned first here on Crikey lists.

    The best independent advice we have in the public domain is ‘up to 2000 barrels a day’ sourced to Geo Science Australia from the Senate Estimtes on 21st October.

    It’s about time the big knobs at the ABC and ALP Govt got real about our own Exxon Valdez disaster.


    Senator Siewert is holding a presser today over in Perth along with a community protest of some sort.

  24. John Bennetts

    Stick with it, Tom. I, for one, will keep watching this thread.


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