Durban "Environmental Disaster" Reaches Galapagos of the South Atlantic


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05 September 2018 Story by Emma Weaver, SAMS & Video by Mic-Kail Harris, SAMS Apprentice

Part of an October 2017 "disastrous" cargo spill, which set loose about 2 billion toxic pellets of plastic into the ocean near Durban, recently reached the remote shores of St Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean – over 2,500km from the west coast of Namibia.

The British Overseas Territory of St Helena houses about 30 percent of the biodiversity in the whole of the UK and its Overseas Territories, gaining it the nickname "Galapagos of the South Atlantic." The island is also the site of a Category VI Marine Protected Area, which is home to a unique population of whale sharks, other marine life and a one-by-one sustainable fisheries.

Nurdles amongst other bits washed up on St Helena Island's Sandy Bay Beach. Photo by Emma Weaver

May 16, the St Helena National Trust Marine Team found an astounding amount of "nurdles" – pea-sized plastic pellets used as exfoliating beads or to make larger plastic items – washed up on the southern-coast Sandy Bay Beach.

Marine Project Consultant Leigh Morris immediately recognised the nurdles as linked to the October spill.

"We have found small numbers of nurdles on Sandy Bay Beach over recent months (mixed in with other micro-plastics), but the very large and very visible amount found this week is highly significant," Morris said.

After departing Sandy Bay Beach, Morris immediately reached out to Lisa Guastella, the South African Oceanographic Consultant coordinating the nurdle-spill reports, for aid in confirming the origin of the nurdles.

May of this year, nurdles have still been washing up at Sandy Bay. Photo by Emma Weaver

"The 5mm-diameter, round, translucent, white nurdles found on Sandy Bay [Beach] corresponds precisely to those lost in a spill in Durban harbour, east coast of South Africa after a freak storm on Oct. 10 last year," Guastella said.

The Marine Team quickly sent a sample to Guastella for further confirmation, but as shipping/mail from the island is by no means quick, Guastella didn't receive the sample until the end of August – when she was finally able to confirm a 99 percent match to the Durban nurdles.

"The fact that you had such high concentrations [on St Helena] suggests that perhaps there was a bag or two that reached there and then broke on the rocks when transported near shore," she said. Even while awaiting the samples, Guastella believed the time and place of the find, in relation to the time and place of the Durban spill, was significant.

"From an oceanographic perspective, this find in St Helena is very exciting," she said. "The timing and location of [the nurdles] found at St Helena fit in with expected ocean current transport." Lisa said ocean-current theory suggests some of the Durban nurdles may have 'leaked' westward into the South Atlantic Ocean, where expected current trajectories would place St Helena in the nurdles' pathway.

The Team floated the nurdles in buckets of ocean water and then used a sieve to aid their collections. Photo by Emma Weaver

She said the nurdles might then head on toward northeast Brazil. To date, only 28 percent of the 2 billion (49 tons) of nurdles spilled in October have been recovered.

A Communication Director from South Africa's National Department of Environmental Affairs was quoted in January, saying "It has become clear, due to the amount of nurdles spilt, and their size, that the clean-up operation is going to be long and difficult."

The May 16 find on St Helena is a significant one that demonstrates just how long and difficult the clean-up operation indeed is; previous to the find, the pellets had been tracked only as far North as Tofo, Mozambique and as far South as Yzerfontein, South Africa.

Though the nurdle find may be exciting from an oceanographic perspective, it is also worrying.

"The iconic whale sharks, now officially one of the 7 Wonders of St Helena, are filter-feeders and will be taking these nurdles into their mouths as they feed," Morris said. "The build-up of plastics and their toxins within their bodies could have a major impact on this species in years to come, and the 5mm translucent white pellets being found on our beach at Sandy bay look very similar to the fish eggs that whale sharks love to eat."

As the nurdles, similarly to other micro-plastics, become smaller over time other species of fish, and other marine life, will likely also become effected by the nurdles.

St Helena National Trust Marine Team consultant Leigh Morris (right), assistant Kenickie Andrews (front left) and assistant Jamie Ellick (left) collecting data on the nurdles. Photo by Emma Weaver

"Once [the nurdles] have been ingested, they will stay in the animal's stomach and cause damage by making the animals become malnourished, and through the toxins they carry," Morris said.

"Once in the food chain, these plastics are consumed by larger species, and then larger ones, etc. ultimately passing the nurdles up the food chain and building up a higher concentration in the top predators."

Since the nurdles were first discovered, they have still have been washing up at Sandy Bay Beach.


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