Tobago oil spill threatens economy, environment

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Tobago oil spill threatens economy, environment

On February 7, an oil spill occurred in Tobago stirring up environmental and economic concerns. In an interview on Altos, economist Dr Marlene Attzs said the incident is “the perfect storm” across sustainable development sectors.

This is not the first time Tobago has dealt with such a disaster. Dr Attzs noted that “45 years ago, Tobago had a significant, a far more significant oil spill experience. Two, I think, two vessels collided, and it was a significant amount of oil.”

The current spill happened along the southwestern coast of Tobago, directly affecting key tourism areas. As Dr Attzs explained, “where the oil spill has occurred is essentially in the southwestern part of Tobago. So, Scarborough, Crown Point, Lowlands…that’s where you find the bulk of Tobago’s hotel plants.” She warned that “there is going to be some residual in terms of the impact in that area.”

To mitigate effects, authorities implemented disaster readiness measures. As Dr Attzs stated, “I want to thank the ODPM and its Major General, Rodney Smart, for providing me with the information.” The information in the interview with regard to location, collaborations and clean-up efforts were based on a situation report dated February 18 which she received from the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM).

The ODPM, along with the Tobago House of Assembly, the Institute of Marine Affairs, Ministry of Works, and other agencies had coordinated the response. Their actions include putting up “booms to essentially absorb some of the oil” and “now to protect the port where the large cruise ships come in.” Keeping the port operational is essential to maintain tourism revenue.

Beyond tourism, Dr Attzs outlined other economic effects, stating “there will be an economic cost associated with it [the spill].” The agriculture and fisheries industries are directly threatened, likely increasing already-high seafood prices. Two schools near the spill site have closed over air quality concerns. Oil toxins create health risks if ingested.

According to Dr Attzs, “we have to look at the cost of if you see a shortfall in your tourist arrivals…that is income that is foregone.” There is also “a direct impact in terms of the fish stock.”

She said, as an example, if a fisherman earns potentially “$2–3,000 a week” and employs persons, there is a spill-on effect in terms of persons who become unemployed. If the fisherman had a contractual obligation to provide fish to a restaurant or to a hotel, it represents more financial losses.

When asked about calculating total costs, Dr Attzs responded, “I’ve not done the numbers per se, but we have to look at the…income that is foregone” across many industries. There are also long-term environmental effects to consider regarding regeneration of ecosystems like mangroves and coral reefs.

She offered, “once it does settle, and it’s not so much of a hot topic in terms of the bacchanal, I would, in fact, be reaching out to provide at least some support.”

Dr Attzs who lectures at The University of the West Indies suggested collaborating with her students on analysis, saying “it would be a golden opportunity for us to marry our students’ learning with a practical example and try to provide support at the national level.”

Ultimately, Dr Attzs stated investigations should shift from “who’s to blame” to fully understanding and addressing “the economic and the environmental impacts”. As she asserted, “this is a serious issue for us in Trinidad and Tobago, more so for Tobago.” The country must learn from this recent disaster to improve future “disaster mitigation”. The ripples from this one incident prove that “one disaster can actually destroy an economy.”

“So the same way in which we look at hurricanes, and we think about floods, this is a man-made disaster, as opposed to the natural disasters that are hurricanes, et cetera, et cetera. And I think because it has not happened for a long time doesn’t mean that we should not anticipate marine waters…. But we really need to focus a lot on disaster preparedness and to understand the risks to which we were exposed and to put mitigation measures to reduce the impacts.”