The Fiji Times

Ticking timebombs of the deep


THOUSANDS of World War II shipwrecks lie on the Pacific Ocean floor. But they continue to pollute the sea today Lukeson Chekani recalls seeing an inky-black mass spreading across the ocean.

It was late last year when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake had just struck his home of Solomon Islands.

“At that time when we looked at the shore and sea — it was black,” he said.

“It wasn’t until after we smelled it that we knew it was oil.”

Two boys jumped into canoes to inspect the damage.

“When the boys paddled out, they saw the oil still bubbling up,” Mr Chekani told ABC’s The Pacific program.

The exact source of the oil spill is unknown, but locals suspect the seismic activity caused a leak from one of the more than 100 shipwrecks scattered underwater along the Solomon Islands coastline.

Guadalcana­l island in Solomon Islands saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

So many Japanese and allied ships and airplanes were sunk in the stretch of water near Guadalcana­l that it’s now called Iron Bottom Sound.

It has been almost 80 years since the end of the war, but its impacts are still being felt.

The shipwrecks can be a source of income for locals who charge tourists a fee to access the sites.

But the sunken warships are rusting through and could have a detrimenta­l effect – not just on the marine life, but local livelihood­s.

Mr Chekani is one of many in the region who relies on the beach and the sea for a living — fishing in the ocean and cleaning the shoreline.

“In that one month, we didn’t have any form of income, because the beach and the sea are our main incomes,” he said.

“We didn’t use the sea for swimming, we stopped beachgoers from coming.”

Thousands of tonnes of oil in

almost 4000 wrecks

An estimated 3800 ships were sunk during the conflict and remain on the Pacific Ocean floor, the bulk of them in Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) — sometimes referred to as the “world’s biggest ship graveyard”.

Chuuk Lagoon was a key imperial Japanese base during the war, and American planes bombarded the location for three days straight, sinking dozens of ships in a short space of time.

Locals have been dealing with the fallout of oil spills for years, according to FSM senator Perpetua Konman.

“The risk of leaving those ships or not draining … oil from those ships will have a great impact on our ocean and it will damage our marine ecosystem,” she said.

“That is our only economy in our nation — our ocean ... and our fish.”

Aside from thousands of tonnes of oil, the vessels hold unknown quantities of unexploded bombs, and their deteriorat­ion could have potentiall­y dangerous consequenc­es.

Experts have determined around 60 of the sunken vessels are at risk of breaking down, including 19 in FSM, 15 in Solomon Islands, and 13 in Marshall Islands — as well as five in Papua New Guinea and four near Australia.

There are renewed calls from locals and researcher­s to address what have been referred to as “ticking timebombs”, calling on the former warring sides to help drain the oil and mitigate the threats.

Programs partially funded by the Australian and Japanese government­s are underway to properly survey the risks posed by 19 of the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon.

But Matt Carter, from the Major Projects Foundation — a marine research and conservati­on not-for-profit organisati­on that maps and decontamin­ates wrecks across the Pacific — says it’s just a drop in the ocean.

“We know when they were sunk, they (were) carrying certain quantities of oil, unexploded ordnance,” Dr Carter said.

“But no-one knows anything more than that for a lot of these shipwrecks. So some of them are simply a GPS point on a map.”

To resolve the scale of the threat will require multiple government­s, many years and political will, he said.

‘We were not responsibl­e’ Removing oil from old wrecks is routine in some parts of the world, but it’s not cheap.

“This is something which we do not have resources for, nor the capacity and the technical know-how to carry out such an exercise,” Solomon Islands Environmen­t Minister Melchior Mataki told ABC’s The Pacific program.

Dr Mataki is calling on the war’s main combatants to do more to alleviate the risk shipwrecks pose.

“We were not responsibl­e for having them in the first place,” he said.

“They (need) to work closely with us to render these wrecks safe, so that our people do not face this risk.”

The Australian government has committed $2.12 million ($F3.10m) to help remove oil from potentiall­y polluting wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon, under a project implemente­d by the Japanese Mine Action Service.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it also provided $4.3 million ($F6.29m) per year to the Secretaria­t of the Pacific Regional Environmen­t Programme, which has a project on waste management and pollution control, including activities targeting oil spill risk.

The Japanese government said it had carried out projects to remove and recover leaked oil from shipwrecks in FSM alongside Japanese non-profit organisati­ons for the past six years, contributi­ng about $1 million ($F1.46m) each year.

“These projects include exploratio­n for sunken vessels, identifica­tion of their locations, investigat­ion of possibilit­ies of oil leakages, temporary measures to fix such leakages, and capacity building for local government officials.

“In addition to greatly reducing the risk of oil leakage due to shipwreck decay and other causes, we also expect that these projects will contribute to the improvemen­t of living conditions for local residents, environmen­tal conservati­on, ecosystem protection, and the revitalisa­tion of local industries such as fishing and tourism.”

It added that the government would consider what other assistance it could provide to other nations in the Pacific based on the needs of each government.

The ABC has contacted the US State Department for comment.

Despite these initiative­s, locals and experts say there’s a lack of firm commitment from the war’s combatants to decontamin­ate the shipwrecks at the scale required to protect the ocean from harm.

Many who rely on the sea to survive, like Mr Chekani, fear help may come too late.

The oil spill following the earthquake came as a shock to him and his community.

“We didn’t expect it to happen,” he said.

“I’ve never seen this before ... My concern is that it might happen again.

■ CHRISNRITA AUMANULEON­G is ABC’s reporter in Solomon Islands as part of the ABC’s Pacific Local Journalism Network.

■ GABRIELLA MARCHANT is a journalist with ABC News and has worked as a reporter in Melbourne, Adelaide and in regional South Australia.

■ ERIN HANDLEY is a journalist with the ABC’s Asia Pacific Newsroom. The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessaril­y reflect the views of this newspaper.

 ?? Picture: STEVE TREWAVAS, MAJOR PROJECTS FOUNDATION ?? Chuuk Lagoon in Federated States of Micronesia is sometimes referred to as the “world’s biggest ship graveyard”.
Picture: STEVE TREWAVAS, MAJOR PROJECTS FOUNDATION Chuuk Lagoon in Federated States of Micronesia is sometimes referred to as the “world’s biggest ship graveyard”.

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