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expert reaction to mystery substance covering seabirds in English Channel

Large numbers of seabirds washed up along the south coast were found to be covered in a sticky, glue-like substance.

 

Dr Simon Boxall, Associate Lecturer, School of Ocean & Earth Science, University of Southampton, said:

“At this stage, and until analysis comes back from the UK Environment Agency as to the nature of the substance, the story is speculative.  The fact that such a large number of offshore feeding birds have been killed and over such a long stretch of coast does lead towards a likelihood that this is an offshore spill of reasonable size.  The advance of dead birds eastwards up the English Channel further supports this as the natural flow and the prevailing winds would drive a slick east and slightly north toward our coast.

“It is possible that the material is palm oil.  Huge quantities are moved through the Channel every week and the nature of the contamination of the birds would fit palm oil – we will know soon.  The source is likely to be illegal.  Option 1 is a ship sunk with a cargo of material –  unlikely as ship sinkings do tend to get reported.  Option 2 is an accidental spill – someone hit the wrong button and dumped a few tons of material overt the side. Errors occur but to not report it is a criminal offence.  Option 3 (most likely) is a ship flushing its tanks after having recently delivered a cargo of the material. Illegal dumping like this is totally inexcusable and is rare (the shipping industry have cleaned up their act substantially over the past 20 years) but there are still criminals out there.  Washing the tanks at sea with sea water is cheap and quick but could result in hundreds of tonnes of material being dumped into our oceans.  100 tones sounds a lot to lose but remember some of these vessels carry over 100,000 tonnes so it is a small percentage (0.1%) of residual material left behind.

“Unlike Silent Witness, forensic science like this takes time.  Assessing the nature and source of a substance isn’t a quick task but is underway. Finding a slick in the open ocean, with no clue as to where it started (if we have a ship as a source it is much easier) is a tricky task.  This is made worse by the current weather: windy and poor visibility.  To put it into perspective:  the English Channel covers about 30,000 square miles.  A slick from an illegal dump would be at most 1 square mile. That’s a bit like trying to find an averagely-sized village in England, but with no clue where it is, and it’s moving around!  This all being done in the rain with a single aircraft flying low.  A big task!”

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