The damage from the 250-tonne oil spill of the Australian coast could be much less than originally apprehended, but the ecological fallout felt for months, including albinism in mangrove plants and reduced fish populations. In the circumstances scientists have called for long-term environmental monitoring.
About 30 animals — mostly waterbirds, some sea snakes and a turtle — have needed care due to the spill from the cargo ship Pacific Adventurer in cyclonic seas last Wednesday.
Ravi Naidu, managing director of the Co-operative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment , said the spill could be toxic for small organisms and some fish. It would take "many, many months" to clean up, he said.
But Moreton Research Station marine biologist Kathy Townsend said Australia had been spared widespread animal suffering associated with large oil spills such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. She said there were three reasons for this outcome: the spill was comparatively small, it was of unrefined diesel fuel — not thick crude oil — and stormy weather had helped break the fuel up naturally,
"When you are looking at some parts of the ecosystem, like pippis and ghost crabs that are living on the sandy shore, they are going to be affected because their whole home has been smothered in oil," Dr Townsend said.
"I don't want to belittle the situation, but it is nowhere near as bad as it potentially could have been."
Simon Baltais, president of the Wildlife Protection Society, said many migratory birds had already headed north for the winter and dugongs, bottlenose dolphins and turtles in Moreton Bay had been largely protected as the island's ocean coast wore most of the spill.
But he said monitoring of local ecosystems would need to continue for years. If hydrocarbons from the spill reached mangroves, they would drain colour from green fruit and prevent plants from photosynthesising, eventually killing them, Adam Morton and Cosima Marriner reported for The Age.
"There potentially could be an impact on fish stocks if oil made its way into the food chain," Mr Baltais said.
Queensland authorities say storms have set back oil spill recovery efforts on polluted beaches on Moreton Island, off Brisbane.
Strong winds blew sand over large patches of oil-crusted beaches on Monday evening, making the island look deceptively clean.
But it just means more work for clean-up crews who are now digging up two layers of sand to remove the oil.
Almost everything is being done by hand and there are fears the storms may have set efforts back by about a week.
The clean-up effort pushed ahead on Tuesday despite sweltering conditions.
On Sunday, Queensland authorities seized the passport of Captain Bernardino Santos.
The captain has been ordered to stay in Brisbane for at least the next two weeks.
His crew also remains on board the Pacific Adventurer, which is docked at Hamilton.
Swire says the crew will stay in Brisbane as long as necessary and will assist any investigation.
The company has not been told when authorities will allow the ship to be moved.
The Queensland Government says the damaged hull will have to be repaired before it can leave Brisbane.
Maritime Safety Queensland believes the containers have sunk 150 metres to the ocean floor. Three separate investigations are being conducted by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Maritime Safety Queensland and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. They will look at the ship's seaworthiness, how the containers were stowed and circumstances surrounding the accident.
The Sunshine Coast Regional Council (SCRC) says it is nearly finished the oil clean-up along its beaches.
SCRC spokesman Andrew Ryan says the beaches are still closed from Kawana to Currimundi and Yaroomba to Mudjimba.
"The focus we will be putting in certainly is really making sure we can get our major flagged areas opened for the weekend - that really is our ambition," he said.
The State Government has launched a $750,000 tourism campaign to entice visitors back to South-East Queensland coastal areas following last week's oil spill.