With fears growing that an oil spill in the East China Sea last month could impact marine life, reefs and fishing grounds in western Japan and Okinawa in the coming weeks, the government stepped up measures Friday to deal with what has been described by scientists as potentially one of the worst oil spills in decades.

The Cabinet Office announced Friday it had established a branch to monitor information about oil spilled by the Iranian-flagged tanker Sanchi on Jan. 14 when it collided with a cargo ship. The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 metric tons of ultra-light condensate (a mix of petroleum liquids extracted from natural gas) and had been destined for South Korea.

The central government’s action comes a day after the Japan Coast Guard and Kagoshima Prefecture confirmed that black oily substances were found drifting ashore on the small island of Takarajima, which lies between Amami Oshima and Yakushima, a world heritage site famous for its ancient cedar trees.

“Cleanup operations in and around the Amami Oshima area have been taking place. Right now, there is no official confirmation yet that the oily substances are from the tanker, but we’ll continue to monitor the situation,” Yuta Nishikawa, a coast guard spokesman in Kagoshima, told The Japan Times on Friday.

A spokesman for the Fisheries Agency said information about the spill was still coming in and more was needed.

“We’re also discussing the possibility of conducting our own survey. At the moment we have no reports from local fishing unions that there has been damage to the fishing grounds. But future damage is possible,” said agency spokesman Masahiko Mori.

Scientists at the University of Southhampton’s National Oceanography Center recently estimated that the oil could reach Japan within a month, and that, in addition to the Amami Oshima area, the coastlines of northern and southern Kyushu as well as waters off Shikoku and off Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures, faced varying degrees of risk from it.

“The revised simulations suggest that pollution from the spill may be distributed much further and faster than previously thought, and that larger areas of the coast may be impacted,” the center said on Jan. 16.

In a statement released Friday, Paul Johnston, principal scientist of Greenpeace’s International Science Unit and an expert on aquatic invertebrates, called for quick confirmation as to whether the oily substances found on Takarajima were from the spill.

“At this stage, it seems likely that the oil we are seeing (in media reports) is from the Sanchi. In order to confirm, it needs to be analytically ‘fingerprinted’ against a sample of the fuel oil taken from the site where the tanker went down,” Johnston said.

“Cetaceans and birds are at high risk of exposure, and fish may be contaminated as well,” he said. He called for increased visual and chemical monitoring to assess the scale of the accident and for Japan to begin immediate removal, using mechanical means, of the oily substances from Takarajima.

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