South Africa suspends bunkering service in Algoa Bay following oil spill

South African authorities have suspended offshore bunkering services in Algoa Bay following an oil spill during a transfer operation near the port of Ngqurha on the eastern seaboard of the country.

Two vessels belonging to Minerva Bunkering spilled oil in the bay.

A ban on bunkering services had been in place since 2019 and was only repealed a couple of months ago,

Government agencies said the oil spill occurred when bunker tanker MT Lefkas and the tanker Umnenga II were undertaking an oil transfer operation on Monday May 23rd. The incident saw authorities launch containment and extraction measures, which included the suspension of ship-to-ship transfers until further notice.

The authorities also launched investigations to establish the cause of the spillage and the exact quantity of oil spilt in the incident.

Environmentalists and conservationists were opposed to lifting of the bunkering services moratorium imposed in 2019 because of risks to the foraging and breeding grounds of endangered marine species like the iconic African penguin. Three oil spills had occurred as a direct result of fuel ship-to-ship bunkering over the past six years, and they argued that lifting the ban would endanger Algoa Bay’s marine biodiversity.

“The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has initiated all relevant oil spill response teams as per the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan to assist with the containment and clean-up operation following an oil spill In Algoa Bay,” said SAMSA.

Part of the containment measures included the deployment of five oil recovery boats that were being used to collect the oil, as well as the use of a helicopter to carry out aerial surveillance and assist in directing the boats towards the oil sheen for collection. However, the clean-up operation was being impeded by rough sea conditions, forcing the suspension of work at some points.

“Oil spill modelling provided by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation indicates that the oil will not impact the Swartkops River nor (Nelson Mandela Bay) Metro beaches, but will drift eastward towards the beaches of Woody Cape,” said SAMSA in an update on Wednesday May 25th.

It added that no oiled birds or wildlife had been spotted so far, with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds being put on a high state of readiness to receive oiled birds.

By Wednesday, the two tankers were still docked alongside each other as a preventative measure, with the government agencies evaluating whether it was safe to bring the MT Lefkas into port while Umnenga II remained offshore in the bay until a berth was available at the port of Ngqura.