The spill at the West Atlas drill rig in the Timor Sea started more than three weeks ago, and no-one believes it will take less than three more weeks to plug the oil. The slick is now so big it can be seen from space, and a light sheen has crept within ten kilometres of Ashmore Reef. Fishermen say a fifth of their waters have been polluted by the oil and they're worried that fish could be poisoned.
Presenter: Di Bain
Speaker: Bob Masters, fisherman; Darren Kindleysides, Australian director for the Marine Conservation Society; Greg Hunt, Australian Opposition's environment spokesman
DI BAIN: It was just a few days ago that one of Bob Master's colleagues returned from a fishing trip with an oiled sea snake and a turtle covered in yellow gunk.
BOB MASTERS: They'd already commenced fishing and they saw and they collected some dead sea snakes and they saw some turtles that were all covered in this yellow gunk and stuff like that.
DI BAIN: Bob Masters is the treasurer for the Kimberley Professional Fisherman's Association he says millions of dollars worth of red emperor, snapper, cod and coral trout are found in the waters known as the northern fishing ground. He says the leaking oil well is right in the middle of the ground and he's concerned that the dispersant which is being used to break up the oil is causing more harm than good.
BOB MASTERS: When dispersants are used to clean up this light crude it forces the dispersed oil into the water column and that's where the fish stocks are and the marine life, living in the water column. We think it's better that if it was just left alone because it's quite volatile and the sun and the normal natural environment will break it down fairly rapidly.
DI BAIN: So could the oil potentially kill the fish, or could the fish consume it and become poisonous to eat?
BOB MASTERS: Dispersant mixed with the oil can be ingested or flow through the gills and cause irritation when they swim through it, and that's what happens then. You have this effect that will be a slow and painful existence for that fish if it actually dies. But what also happens is how recruitment of fish eggs and larvae when the fish spawn are in the water column, you see? So if you put this chemical on the oil and send it down into the water column it's got more chance of having a big effect on the recruitment of the fish.
DI BAIN: The Federal Minister for Environment, Peter Garrett, was unavailable to talk about the oil spill. His office has issued a statement saying trained observers are in the area and they're monitoring the wildlife and analysis of fish specimens show no visible oil contamination. But conservationists say the Government is playing down the scale of the disaster. While the slick is getting smaller the light crude sheen is marching towards the sensitive Ashmore Reef where ten birds have been found oiled.
Darren Kindleysides is the director for the Marine Conservation Society. He wants more rigorous testing with the results made available to the public.
DARREN KINDLEYSIDES: There's been this - oh, it's out of sight, out of mind. The fact that oil hasn't washed up on the coastline yet shouldn't be taken as a sign that there's no impact on the marine environment. It really is something of a myth that only when oil reaches a coastline is there an impact. The area of a spill is very important for a range of species of turtles, dolphins, whales, sea snakes. And so the fact that we've had a month of oil entering the ocean and perhaps another month before that well is clamped, this really is shaping up in a very bad way for the marine environment.
DI BAIN: Authorities say it'll be at least another three weeks before the oil leak can be plugged. The Federal Opposition's Environment spokesman Greg Hunt says the timeframe for fixing the problem seems to be growing.
GREG HUNT: We need independent monitoring. We need the Government to support independent monitoring by a body such as Charles Darwin University or James Cook University to have a genuine environmental assessment of the impact, not just of the spill, but of the clean-up process.
DI BAIN: Fishermen in the Kimberley say they're no longer fishing anywhere near the oil slick so there's no danger the seafood they catch will be toxic. This season a fifth of their fishing ground is off limits.