Eight months after the small tanker Agia Zoni II sank in the Saronic Gulf spilling of 2,500 tons of oil, Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, in collaboration with the Hydrocarbon Lab of the Biology Department of Essex University, UK and with the support of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), continues the monthly monitoring of the status of the ecosystems affected by the oil spill. Sampling began a few days after the wreck and is repeated monthly in order to:
- record the growth rate of petroleum-depleting bacteria
- produce objective conclusions regarding the bioaccumulation of toxic substances in fish and seafood,
- monitor the general condition of the coastal ecosystems in the area by using specialized loggers
Fortunately, the various types of specialist bacteria that degrade hydrocarbons can naturally clean up the marine environment through natural processes. Hence they could be used, in the future, as an important biotechnological aid for cleaning up oil spills. However, it takes many different species of bacteria working together to degrade the hundreds of different types of hydrocarbons that are present in oil. There is still limited knowledge on how these microbial consortia develop over time during an oil spill and subsequent clean-up operations.
Since opportunities to study large oil spills in situ are fortunately rare, it is essential to learn from this environmental disaster so that we can improve our understanding on how microbial communities break down hydrocarbons, thereby also improving the design of more effective future oil spill restoration strategies.
The Saronic Gulf – A Sea Facing Multiple Environmental Burdens
Even before this shipwreck, the Saronic Gulf was already one of the most impacted sea areas in the NE Mediterranean, due to chronic and severe anthropogenic impacts. It is an area in which stringent environmental pressures coexist, such as industrial zones (oil refineries, large shipyards, ship demolition facilities and a major commercial port), the waste water and runoff from a capital with a population exceeding 5 million. Another impacting factor that is rarely discussed is the large amounts of toxic substances (e.g. from antifouling paints) that end up in the sea from the annual repair of over 10,000 yachts. This takes place in violation of the relevant legal framework, in coastal areas and marinas that lack the necessary environmental safety infrastructure.
In this context and despite the successful cleaning of oil from the bathing beaches, it is important to continue monitoring the effects of Agia Zoni II shipwreck, in order to determine the extent of the ecosystem and food chain degradation caused by the oil spill, as well as the effects of the chronic and increasing anthropogenic pressure on the Saronic Gulf.
This shipping accident demonstrated, once again, the chronic inefficiency of the national mechanism in Greece with respect to shipping accident prevention and management. With over 3 million tonnes of oil and gas transported daily in the Aegean Sea, the risk of a non-reversible disaster (environmental and economic) is a constant threat. For almost two decades, Archipelagos Institute, through targeted research, is proving the immediate need for the development of an effective and operational mechanism to prevent and respond to potential shipping accidents.
Director of Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation