Oil was spotted off the coast of Queensland, Australia on Friday, sparking fears that a spill might threaten the Great Barrier Reef.
A fisherman reported a sheen of about 1 kilometer (about .6 miles) Friday afternoon (Australia time), the Guardian reported. Officials took to helicopters and water vessels to search for the spill, and while they couldn’t locate the slick, they did spot oily patches of water south of Townsville, Queensland. In addition, officials found “oily residue” on the boat of the fisherman who reported the spill.
“We can confirm some patches of oily water have been sighted in the water south of Townsville,” an official told the Brisbane Times. The oil spots were about 3 feet in diameter, but officials didn’t say the size of the area covered by the patches.
Officials are planning to take aircraft out again Saturday morning to search for evidence of a spill in the ocean, islands, and coastline.
It’s not yet known where the oily patches have come from or whether they’ll impact the Great Barrier Reef. But the reef — which is the world’s largest coral reef system and its “biggest single structure made by living organisms” — is facing multiple environmental threats, major oil spill or none. Last year, scientists warned the Australian Senate that the reef was in the worst state it’s been in since record keeping began, due in part to coastal development and dredging. The dredging has been occurring as Australia expands its ship ports along its coast, development which entails dredging — or digging up — the sea bed. The waste produced by the dredging has been smothering coral reefs.
The Australian government unveiled a plan earlier this year that seeks to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef, in part by banning the dumping of dredging waste. The ban, however, won’t apply to the reef’s entire world heritage area, which means that under the plan, dumping could still occur close enough to threaten it.
In addition, environmentalists in Australia point out that the plan doesn’t provide steps to protect the reef from the impacts of climate change and rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Those include ocean acidification that can, at certain levels, make it difficult for coral to build its skeleton and for young shellfish to build their shells, and that can have wide-ranging effects on fish. They also include warming oceans that can cause coral bleaching, a process in which corals expel the algae living in them and become more susceptible to death.
“This plan allows for massive coal port expansions and barely deals with climate change, despite the Australian government’s own scientists saying climate change is the number one threat to the Reef,” Greenpeace campaigner Jessica Panegyres said in a statement in March.
Earlier this month, the United Nations’ World Heritage Committee decided not to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger,” but said it would monitor the reef’s condition over the next four years.