Oil that spilled from a tanker practice known as ship-to-ship transfer is the prime suspect behind a slick that reached the Fujairah coast on January 26.
That’s according to Tanker Trackers, a pro-bono website that monitors the flow of oil at sea and investigates oil spills.
Ship-to-ship transfers happen when a smaller vessel supplies a larger tanker with oil.
They are common in the global oil trade and usually take place without a problem but oil spills from overflow can happen through negligence or by accident.
Tanker Tackers believe an area in international waters off the coast of Dibba may be the origin for last weekend’s oil spill. It’s known as an anchorage area and can extend into international waters. But because the water was too dark in the images and light clouds that obscured the view, it may be impossible to definitively identify the ships.
"Most of this anchorage … occupies international waters [for transit] where UAE lacks jurisdiction," said Samir Madani, co-founder of Tanker Trackers.
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“As in many cases, the cause of the spill could be related to accidents during a ship-to-ship transfer of oil out in the open sea. Given that these transfers happen in waters which at times might be rocky, the smaller vessel might end up causing the spill because it has a lower height than the larger vessel. Our investigation continues as we source in more data.”
Two weeks ago, a spill from one of these transfers happened off the coast of Iraq.
Other causes for spills are tankers illegally cleaning out their hulls, discharging oily water or releasing ballast water - but experts believe these ship-to-ship transfers are more likely to be responsible for oil spills. Water currents circulating to the west can compound the problem.
The issue is in sharp focus again following last week’s spill at Al Aqah, hurting tourism and damaging marine life. Last year, the east coast of the UAE was hit by a series of oil slicks. Local authorities moved swiftly to clean up the area, while the UAE Armed Forces and Coastguard also respond to these incidents.
Salah Al Rayssi is director of the fisheries sustainability department at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.
"Dumping waste in the sea raises environmental concerns which is life-threatening on the marine ecosystem in the region. The UAE has enacted laws banning throwing waste and oil sludge into the water by the hundreds of tankers operating in the region," he told The National.
The UAE’s territorial waters extend for 12 nautical miles. And the country has firm penalties in place to deal with offenders. According to Federal Law 24 from 1999, all marine means of transportation are prohibited from discharging or disposing of oil or oil mixture into the marine environment. Penalties include imprisonment and fines of up to a Dh1 million.
“The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment works closely with local authorities, to respond in real-time to oil spill incidents, by overseeing the clean-up of contaminated beaches along the east coast of the UAE, and finding the perpetrators and holding them accountable for their actions.”
Mr Al Rayssi said the ministry is currently working to enhance an oil spill monitoring and detection system which aims to unify the efforts of all federal and local authorities in the country.
The UAE has been tackling the issue for years. Fujairah Port in 2005 reminded tankers that ship to ship transfers in the port area were prohibited, ordering it be done out at sea in this anchorage area because of oil that was reaching the shore from unknown sources.
The UAE, meanwhile, has outperformed all other Gulf and Arab countries and was ranked 28th in the world in the recent Ocean Health Index, a marine assessment survey. The country scored 77 points out of 100, although the global average of the Ocean Health Index requires only 70 points.