World War II shipwrecks turning into Pacific environmental threat

by AFP/Michael Field, Nov 15, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

From the violent shores of Guadalcanal to a lonely Micronesian atoll, villagers and fishermen alike are becoming fearful of a 60-year-old legacy starting to drift their way -- World War II oil.

Around the Solomon Islands, scene of some of the bitterest naval battles ever, coral reefs are dying while at Ulithi Atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) a sunken American naval tanker is threatening a subsistence fishing community.

Amidst a sense of looming crisis the issue came up at Spillcon 2002, an international oil spill conference in Sydney, Australia, last month.

Among papers presented there, and now published online (, was one on Pacific Island marine spills by South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) adviser Sefainaia Nawadra and (Australian Maritime Safety Authority environment adviser Trevor Gilbert.

"Another potential marine pollution risk for the Pacific is the fuel oil and cargoes remaining on (war) shipwrecks deteriorating in the waters of the region," the two say.

"More than 1,000 such wrecks have been identified amounting to over three million tons of shipping lost."

A chart published with the paper reveals a heavy concentration of wrecks through the Solomon Islands, around the FSM, the Philippines and scatterings through the region, including off Fiji and New Caledonia.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage site, is threatened by two American wrecks, victims of the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea.

The USS Lexington was attacked and sunk by Japanese planes off the Barrier Reef, as was the fleet tanker USS Neosho. Although it went down burning it could have up to 19 million litres of oil still aboard.

The experience around the Pacific now is that after decades of lying untouched the steel wrecks are corroding so severely the oil is beginning to leak out.

Late last year the 700 residents on Ulithi in FSM noticed a large slick on their lagoon. It proved to be from the wreck of USS Mississinewa, a tanker sunk by a Japanese suicide submarine in 1944.

The US Coast Guard, who has now explored the wreck, believes it might contain up to 1.6 million litres (440,000 gallons) of heavy oil.

Efforts are underway to recover it.

Nothing is being done about the Solomons.

During the epic Battle of Guadalcanal and associated actions, at least 50 ships were sunk in waters known to fighting sailors as "the Slot", but today as Iron Bottom Sound.

Heavy ships in the waters include USS Quincy and the Australian heavy cruiser Canberra, the Japanese aircraft carrier Kinugasa and their battleship Kirishima.

In the last decade several Solomons governments have reported the reefs around Western Guadalcanal are dying from what they believe is oil pollution. One prime minister complained fish and marine life was dying and appealed for international help.

Nawadra and Gilbert say in their paper that Mississinewa led to the issue coming before SPREP, a multi-national regulatory agency in the Pacific that called for a strategy to deal with the problem.

The two say there is currently no international multilateral legal instrument governing ownership of sunken warships or military aircraft.

"However, there is a well-developed body of customary international law governing the treatment of sunken warships and military aircraft," they said.

Any activities carried out on wrecks in exclusive economic zones will need the agreement of the country which owned the ship and the country it now rested in.

The two said a database has been developed on World War II wrecks and it identified the vessel type, cargo and bunkers, date of sinking and geographic features of the area it was in.

"Currently the database contains information on over 1,080 World War II shipwrecks, including 23 large aircraft carriers, 213 destroyers, 22 battleships and around 50 oil tankers," the two report.

"A significant number of World War II shipwreck sites are also war graves and sites of historical and archaeological significance.

"This needs to be considered when working on these sites."

SPREP's strategy ahead is to continue with data collection and analysis of the wrecks and to make risk assessments on them.

The next step will be to reach agreement on intervention, ranging from the pump out and salvage option through to leaving the wreck alone but monitoring.

They will also do assessments on the surrounding environment to see what effect the wrecks are having.

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