On the 21st August 2009 the Montara Well Head Platform began leaking oil into the Timor Sea. The spill continued over a period of about 12 weeks. During this time it was estimated that about 4000 tonnes of oil was released covering an area of up to 1750 square nautical miles. Within the spill region the Ashmore and Cartier Marine Reserves and their resident wildlife populations were threatened. Ashmore Reserve is recognised both nationally within Australia and internationally as a significant wildlife habitat for a range of wildlife species. Wildlife to these marine reserves includes tens of thousands of seabirds and waders, sea snakes, marine turtles, dugong with migrating cetaceans also using the area. These Marine Reserves are located about 300 nautical miles from the nearest mainland population centre and about 120 nautical miles from the Australian coastline. As a means to respond to the oil spill threat to these Reserves wildlife contingency plans were developed. These subsequently resulted in response actions including: aerial and on ground assessments of wildlife; mobilisation of equipment and personnel to the Reserves; wildlife collection operations; primary care and stabilisation of wildlife collected; development of a marine based quick wash system to limit chemical burns; transport support to mainland wildlife care facilities; and the preparation of a specialised wildlife care facility on the Australian mainland. These planning and response actions were supported by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority; Australian Customs; Australian Navy; the Federal environmental agency and three state/territory environmental agencies. This response operation was Australia's first offshore oiled wildlife response. Lesson learnt from this operation can be used to provide practical solutions for other offshore oiled wildlife response operations.

March 21, 2011

On the 21st August 2009 the Montara Well Head Platform began leaking oil into the Timor Sea. The wellhead is located about 135 nautical miles (NM) off Australia's North West coast at about 12.40 decimal degrees south and 124.32 decimal degrees east. In terms of its location to population centres it is about 370 NM west of Darwin (the largest population centre), about 135 NM North West of Truscott (a limited rural community in Western Australia), and about 108 NM from Rote, (Indonesia's southern most island).

In response to the safety issues associated with the incident all 69 workers were evacuated from the rig site. During the incident oil, gas and condensate leaked over a period of about 12 weeks into the Timor Sea environment. PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited reported that about 400 barrels (approximately 55 tonnes) of hydrocarbons were spilling into the marine environment each day. Over the 12 week period it was then estimated that about 4000 tonnes of oil was released in total, covering an area of up to 1750 square nautical miles. Computer modelling from the 24th August 2009 showed that of the oil mass released that about 29.81% remained on the surface, 0.011% remained in the water column and 70.176% evaporated as volatiles.

In response to this pollution event the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) provided response support including aerial observations, dispersant applications and skimmer and booming operations. Additionally a further four different Australian government agencies supported the incident response providing environmental and wildlife supportive actions.

On the 28th August 2009, some seven days after the pollution event started, Australian Custom Vessel crews operating in the Timor Sea region, reported small numbers of birds landing on their vessels, as commonly occurs, with plumage that appeared to be contaminated. The then Department of Environment Water Heritage and Arts (DEWHA) were then tasked with determining if this was hydrocarbon contamination, if so was it likely that it was sourced from the rig incident and if there is any chance that without human intervention the animals would recover.

Within the marine environment associated with the oil slick are two marine protected areas, Ashmore and Cartier Marine Reserves, both are managed by DEWHA. These two Marine Reserves are located about 300 nautical miles from the nearest mainland population centre and about 120 nautical miles from the Australian coastline.

Given the remoteness of the Marine Reserves access is a logistical challenge. The distances involved limit the operational ranges by most helicopters and available seaplanes. Even with these transport options there are not the support mechanisms to the islands that would allow the establishment of a forward command centre or staging areas. There are no real structures that could be used or suitable water resources available to support any on site independent capacity. The only options available are limited too the use of long range marine vessels that can be operated in a standalone capacity. These tend to be fairly restricted through commercial or private options with government resources being the most likely assets available.

Marine Reserves

Both Ashmore and Cartier Marine Reserve are recognised both nationally within Australia and internationally as a significant wildlife habitat for a range of wildlife species. Wildlife broadly includes sea snakes, dugongs, reef building corals, fish and other marine invertebrate fauna. Ashmore is ranked under the IUCN as areas open to public access (IUCN Category II) for an area of 3,300 hectares and areas closed to public access (IUCN Category Ia) for an area of 55,000 hectares. Cartier is ranked under the IUCN system as closed to public access (IUCN Category Ia) only for the total reserve, an area of over 17,000 hectares. As Marine Reserves both are managed as Marine Protected Areas with specific Management Plan systems by DEWHA. Ashmore allows general access to some of it's areas allowing scuba diving, snorkelling and some restricted fishing activities. Cartier is totally closed with some access provisions under special authorisation. (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/index.html;http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/management.html;http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/activities.html)

Ashmore is made up of three islands: West, Middle and East islands. The Reserve covers an area of about 583 square kilometres and includes two extensive lagoons, shifting sand flats and cays, seagrass meadows and a large reef flat covering an area of 239 square kilometres. Ashmore has been described as important nesting habitats for many species, including marine turtles, and a number of seabirds and migratory shorebirds. (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/index.html)

For seabirds Ashmore has recorded some 137 different species, with significant populations of Sooty Terns (10,000 to 50,000 – largest breeding colony in Western Australia); and Common Noddy's (13,000 to 35,000 – second largest colony nationally for Australia) being the most significant sightings, 17 of these species have been recorded as breeding. Ashmore has also been described as the most important seabird rookery to the North West Shelf area of Australia. (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/index.html)

For Shorebirds, surveys in 1998 recorded 10 different species for West Island (388 individuals); 9 species for East Island (2124 individuals); and identified the Ashmore Reserve generally as an important site for Grey Tailed Tattlers. It is also acknowledged that the islands within this Reserve act as an important transition site for migrating shorebirds. During the annual migrations for the periods March–April and October–November shorebirds spend 2 weeks on the islands before continuing their ongoing flights. At this time shorebirds use the islands for feeding and resting opportunities. Of the shorebird species observed three species are listed to migratory agreements (e.g. JAMBA; CAMBA; AND ROKAMBA). (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/index.html)

In 2003 Ashmore was designated a “Ramsar Wetland of Significant Importance” because of its important values for both seabirds and shorebirds. (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/management.html)

The Ashmore Reserve is also very significant for sea snakes, with some 17 different species of sea snakes having being recorded, of which three species are endemic to the Reserve. Ashmore has in fact been identified as having the greatest diversity of sea snakes in the world. In 1990 the sea snake population was reported as being about 40,000 individuals. Since 2000 there has been a dramatic decline in sea snake numbers to the Reserve. An indication as to what threatening processes have led to this decline has not been identified.

For Turtles Ashmore is home to Green, Loggerhead and Hawksbill turtles. Nesting of Turtles occurs on all of the islands, with large numbers of juveniles frequenting the local reefal environments. The population of turtles that use both the Ashmore and Cartier marine systems is estimated to be about 11,000 individuals.

Dugongs have also been reported to the Ashmore Reserve with a population estimated to be about fifty in total. This population has been described as being genetically distinct from other regional dugong populations.

Cartier Marine Reserve consists of a single island only covering an area of 167 square kilometres and is located 25 nautical miles south east of Ashmore reef. Cartier Island is an un-vegetated sand cay and is surrounded by a variety of habitats including mature reef flats, a small submerged pinnacle and two shallow pools to the north east of the island. The specific details on the seabird populations to this Reserve are not well documented. For turtles significant numbers do use the reserve for breeding, nesting and feeding as already described. Dugongs have been reported at Cartier but details on actual numbers are unclear. (http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mpa/ashmore/index.html)

To the waters generally associated with the North West Shelf, including the Ashmore and Cartier Marine Reserves, some 22 species of cetaceans have been recorded. They include a diversity of species including but not limited too Humpback whales, Snub Fin dolphins and False Killer whales. (www.nt.gov.au/d/Minerals_Energy)

Wildlife Responsibility

DEWHA as the managing agency for both Marine Reserves were tasked with managing the wildlife component of the incident response associated with this pollution event. DEWHA had not dealt with an oiled wildlife response prior to this event. To expedite the process DEWHA contracted expert personnel resources from Queensland's Department of Environment and Resource Management agency (DERM) and then later from Western Australia's Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC).

Other Oiled Wildlife Reports

During the oil spill, incidental reports of oiled birds were reported through the media. These included anecdotal observations from commercial fisherman, non-government organisations and other oil exploration platforms within the vicinity of the Montara Well Head Platform. Reports included three dead oiled Common Noddys near the Jabiru Venture platform (31st August to 4th September) as well as dead sea snakes from other localities. Unfortunately no photographs or actual evidence were provided to substantiate these reports.

Wildlife Response Objectives

DEWHA's objectives for responding to wildlife matters for this pollution event included:

  1. Confirm from photographic evidence if wildlife in the Timor sea are likely to be contamination from hydrocarbons

  2. Identify wildlife at risk and likely impacted populations through aerial surveillance of the spill area and the two Marine Reserves

  3. Develop primary wildlife response contingency plans

  4. Confirm actual wildlife at risk and wildlife contaminated by undertaking ground truthing at the Marine Reserves

  5. Finalise wildlife response contingency plans

  6. Respond to oiled wildlife if identified at the Reserves

  7. Plan for the development of a shore based rehabilitation facility on the Australian Mainland to respond to large numbers of oiled birds

Interpretation of the photographic evidence collected by Customs Crews

A visual assessment of the photos provided was made by an expert from DERM. It was concluded that there was some form of contamination to the feather structure that may be associated with hydrocarbons. It was also identified that the nature of the contamination was likely to be detrimental to the survival of these individuals as the type of contamination was not likely to self clean and the type of contaminant may also cause chemical burns. This as a very rudimentary assessment did trigger the next stage of the actions undertaken by DEWHA.

Aerial surveillance of the spill area and Marine Reserves to identify wildlife at risk and likely impacted populations

Aerial surveillance was achieved through an existing Coastwatch surveillance flight of the area on the 31st August 2009. A DERM expert undertook the flight observations. Noting that this was some four days after the primary contact by Australian Customs of likely wildlife contamination. The flight was deployed from Broome's Cobham Special Missions Base airport. During the flight cetaceans including Humpback whales were observed but at a considerable distance from the oil slick. The leaking drilling rig was approached to determine if wildlife could be seen using the immediate area surrounding the platform and the platform structure itself. A flight restriction on air space had been placed around the platform detailing that no aircraft were too enter within 20 nautical miles and 3000 feet of the structure. This was due to safety considerations with regards to igniting the structure by passing aircraft. Large amounts of high pressure gases and vapours could be seen venting from the platform. This most likely would have acted as a hazing type effect deterring birds away from the platform as a roosting structure, hence reducing the risk of contamination and being very much a positive feature.

The slick observed during the flight appeared to cover large areas of the waters surface with the conditions at that time being extremely calm. Seabirds, likely to be Brown Booby's and Tern species could be seen feeding in the waters at the slick site. At Cartier Island roosting birds could be seen in their hundreds and at the Ashmore islands birds could be seen also in their hundreds. Later, ground truthing showed that birds inhabiting the islands in the Ashmore Reserve were in their tens of thousands and not as earlier interpreted by the flight. Although it was advantageous to capture a quick snapshot of wildlife in the vicinity of the spill environment through the flight it did show that the surveillance systems aboard the Customs plane and the speed and versatility of the Dash 8 aircraft were limiting for this type of operation. Any data collected in this manner for future incidents does therefore need to be considered with caution.

Development of primary wildlife response contingency plans

The interpretation of photographic evidence and the surveillance flight then led to the production of the primary wildlife response plans and the need to ground truth the populations at Ashmore and Cartier Reserves. This ground truthing was based on the risk exposure, the wildlife present and likelihood that these sites would be used as roosting opportunities by contaminated wildlife where physically possible. As a part of the ground truthing action and largely because of the logistical restrictions of the locations it was decided to take some basic wildlife response equipment on site so that basic remote site stabilisation could be achieved if required. It was also decided to take equipment to allow for the delivery of any necessary quick washes to remove contaminants that may lead to chemical burns. A quick wash is a partial wash approach taking only about ten minutes in total removing the worst of the contaminants, (noting that a complete wash would still be required later to return the feathers to a waterproof status). Plans detailing all of these actions were produced. Expert personnel support was gathered from DERM and DEC to support on site operations. Equipment was provided through AMSA from their oiled wildlife response kit based in Darwin and supplemented by the Great Barrier Marine Park Authorities (GBRMPA) oiled wildlife training equipment based in Townsville. GBRMPAs kit provided specialist equipment for capture, quick washing and blood assessment. In addition equipment was purchased locally within Darwin to support the quick wash operations and four 1000 litre Intermediate Bulk Containers for waste water storage were also obtained. In terms of response personnel two were mobilised too Darwin, one from DERM and one from DEC, with the plan to secure personnel support from Customs crew personnel as needed and as available. On the 6th August 2009, the Australian Customs Vessel “Roebuck Bay” left Darwin for Ashmore and Cartier Marine Reserves to undertake ground truthing and provide wildlife support as needed.

Confirm wildlife at risk and wildlife contaminated by undertaking ground truthing at the Marine Reserves

The “Roebuck Bay” arrived at Ashmore Marine Reserve on the 8th August 2009, twelve days after the primary wildlife notification. Surveys of the three islands and their resident wildlife populations were initiated upon arrival but access restrictions due to tidal movements and exposed fringing reefs restricted field operations and operational expediency.

Day and night time surveys were initially undertaken to determine what wildlife if any were contaminated. The use of night surveys through island roosting and nesting sites is common in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. It provides a low impact effective means of working though high density populations. The night surveys in the Ashmore Marine Reserve were very short lived however as the birds responded very badly to our presence. Why these populations, of the same species as those from the Great Barrier Reef, behaved so differently is unclear? There was a suggestion that illegal night time egg predation to these colonies may have been a factor. Because of the negative impact of night survey work, surveys were then restricted to day light operations only.

Withy regards to the survey work West Island recorded 15 Crested Terns; 18 Grey Tailed Tattlers; 7 Red Necked Stints; 38 Brown Boobies; 27 Ruddy Turnstones; 17 Whimbrels; all roosting; Reef Egrets 26 roosting adults and 13 breeding adults; and 28 breeding Bridled Terns; totalling 189 birds.

Surveys at East Island showed the presence of Common Noddys 2725 roosting adults, 15,287 breeding adults, 2626 partly feathered chicks and 1 downy chick; Sooty Terns 1562 breeding adults, 5 partly feathered juveniles; Brown Boobys 508 roosting adults, 428 breeding adults, 404 partly feathered juveniles and 8 downy chicks; Lesser frigates 47 roosting adults, 4 breeding adults, 496 partly feathered juveniles; Ruddy Turnstones 43 roosting adults; Little Egrets 14 breeding adults and 8 downy chicks, Reef Egrets 48 breeding adults; Masked Boobies 1 roosting adult, 5 breeding adults and 2 partly feathered juveniles; Red Footed Boobies 8 breeding adults and 5 partly feathered juveniles; Total bird numbers at East island were 24,244. Other wildlife observations near East Island included numerous sub adult green turtles, with carapace lengths of about 40–50 centimetres; and two feeding Dugongs.

Middle Island surveys recorded Common Noddy's with 1400 roosting adults, 9805 breeding adults and 85 partly feathered juveniles; Brown Boobys 705 roosting adults, 780 breeding adults, 170 partly feathered juveniles and 28 down chicks; Lesser Frigatebirds 35 roosting adults, 6 breeding adults and 689 partly feathered juveniles; Ruddy Turnstones 32 roosting adults; Little Egrets 14 roosting adults, 10 breeding adults and 1 downy chick; Reef Egrets 38 breeding adults and 7 downy chicks; Masked Boobies one roosting adult, 6 breeding adults and 3 partly feathered juveniles; Red Footed Boobies 39 breeding adults and 2 partly feathered juveniles; Crested Terns 130 roosting adults and 205 breeding adults; 2 Buff Banded Rails; and 19 Whimbrels; with Middle island totalling 14,940 birds. Cartier Island, the only island in the Cartier Reserve, recorded 520 Crested Terns; 7 Reef Egrets; 27 Ruddy Turnstones; 1 Least Frigate; totalling 550 birds. Also observed were one oiled Brown Booby carcass (oil source unknown) and numerous sub adult turtles, about 40cm carapace length, on the associated reef flats. The oiled bird carcass was quite old and not likely to be associated with this platform spill.

Oiled bird observations

The first oiled bird was collected at Middle Island on the 11th August 2009. The bird was in very bad condition, demeanour was poor, was very dehydrated and unable to escape, allowing personnel to collect the animal easily. This first bird died within 60 minutes of capture and was unlikely to have survived even with any specialised medical care.

On the 12th August 2 Common Noddys and 1 Brown Booby were seen with contamination and collected. The birds looked wet having recently being in the water but once air dried lost this wet look. The feathers did retain an oily feel to them but showed no smell of hydrocarbons. The birds although amongst some 35,000 individuals were clearly identified through their poor demeanour; they were isolated to the intertidal area; were facing along the beach and not out to sea (the escape side) as normal as others were doing; and in all cases were easy to catch.

By the end of the total wildlife response operation a total of 27 oiled birds had been collected. Seventeen had died in captive care, 6 were transferred to Darwin for rehabilitation and 4 juveniles (non-fledged) were transferred back to the island after washing.

Training Package for Australian Customs Crew and Wildlife Crews

The personnel resources available to support wildlife operations at Ashmore and Cartier Marine Reserves were limited. As a means to enhance and strengthen the wildlife response capacity it was decided to develop a free standing power point training package so that Australian Customs Crew and other on site personnel could be easily be made aware of what features to use to identify oil impacted wildlife. The package included a range of photos and descriptors to educate staff on what key indicators to look for and also what reporting mechanisms were available so that the information could be followed up in an efficient and timely manner. The package was completed and trialled on site and then disseminated by CD to the various government vessels on site over the wildlife response period.

Response care to oiled wildlife at the Reserves

Oiled birds that were collected in the Marine Reserves were given basic fluid and nutritional therapy, stabilised and given quick washes. Oiled wildlife were then transferred to other vessels where they were transported to Darwin for further care and rehabilitation. This support in Darwin was provided by a local veterinarian with seabird experience to complete the rehabilitation process.

Development of a shore based facility on the Australian Mainland to respond to large numbers of oiled birds

As a means to prepare for very large numbers of oiled wildlife it was decided to identify a rehabilitation facility at Broome (North West Western Australia) and have plans in place to develop the centre operationally. This was undertaken by DEC with plans and arrangements put in place to be triggered at very short notice if required. The activation of this care facility was not required due to the scale of wildlife impacted.

Key Learning Outcomes from this Offshore Wildlife Response

  1. Offshore oiled wildlife response is achievable

  2. Pre-incident contingency planning specific to offshore oiled wildlife response is essential if we are to be effective and timely

  3. Resources to support off shore response actions for wildlife are specialised and need to be secured as a part of the contingency process

  4. Pre-incident contingency planning for offshore responses needs to be targeted to high risk activities and localities and dealt with on a case by case basis

  5. Offshore wildlife responses would be enhanced through specialised training and exercise opportunities