Greenpeace Japan Communications Officer Akiko Tsuchiya had a moment of personal clarity earlier this month, when she travelled to her country’s southwestern islands to see the impacts of an oil spill with her own eyes for the first time.
The Iranian oil tanker Sanchi caught fire and sank in mid-January, killing 32 crew members and spilling about a million barrels (136,000 tonnes) of ultra-light crude oil condensate and nearly 1,900 tonnes of heavier bunker fuel oil into the East China Sea. Not long afterwards, residues began showing up on the island of Amami Oshima, which Tsuchiya describes as “home to various types of coral reef, as well as fish and endangered marine animals like sea turtles and humpback whales.” Officials still haven’t confirmed that the oil is from the Sanchi—but wherever it originated, it’s affecting an iconic place.
“Seeing the oil on the shore made me sad. Sad for the people and wildlife that might be affected,” she writes. “A dead streaked shearwater was found with oil attached to its feathers. A week earlier, a sea turtle was found choking to death on oil residues. My heart was aching.”
When Tsuchiya visited the site, clean-up operations had already begun, and “collected waste was piled up on the beach. I met local people who said they hoped everything would get back to normal soon, and that people from outside the island would remember what had happened there.”
But a normal outcome may be too much to ask for. “I came to learn that even if the oil is cleared up until there’s no obvious residue, it doesn’t mean the toxicity problem has been removed completely,” she notes. “We know from previous oil spills that toxic residues can persist for a long time in beach sand and sediment, leading to elevated levels of toxic chemicals in marine life.”
That means the only way to protect ecosystems and wildlife from marine oil spills is to prevent them—by reducing the use of petrochemicals like single-use plastics, opting for less fossil-intensive transportation modes, and supporting the transition to renewable energy.
“The reality is that oil spills can happen anywhere and at any time,” Tsuchiya writes. “While we continue to depend on fossil fuels and hydrocarbon chemicals — and transport them by sea — it is inevitable that these accidents will happen.”
That means “everyone who lives on oil consumption is responsible for this, including me. It’s a huge problem to tackle, and it can make me feel helpless. But I believe we can change this. We can be the generation that puts an end to fossil fuels.”