An oil spill from an unidentified vessel off Green Island (綠島) in Taitung County has caused severe oil pollution. The Environmental Protection Administration said it has information about a suspected vessel and will go through diplomatic channels to pursue it and obtain compensation.
Taking a more pessimistic view of the situation, if authorities take a strong position and issue condemnations only after such events occur, it will not have much effect on the environmental protection of Taiwanese waters.
The difference between this event and previous oil spills is that past events have been the result of ships in distress, where oil or fuel tanks have been damaged.
This time the spill was found, but not the ship from which the oil came. The former situation can certainly lead to massive pollution, but the culprit is present and unable to shirk responsibility.
The current spill is significantly smaller, but the responsible ship has absconded and it could be difficult to hold someone responsible.
Oil spills from ships can be divided into accidental spills and spills occurring during normal operations. Accidental spills are the result of neglect, while the latter are intentional. People are generally more accustomed to accidental spills, which also receive more attention.
Nevertheless, a look at global statistics shows that overall, intentional spills are more common and they cause greater damage.
The automatic identification system, a vessel tracking system developed by the Helsinki Commission in 2005, monitors the movement of ships and is also capable of reconstructing some situations that have caused major incidents.
However, recent research has shown that although this has improved vessel design and safety equipment, major security concerns remain. These concerns can be divided into three main categories: flag state controls, port state controls and human error. These three aspects are closely interrelated and must be addressed together for overall improvements to occur.
Although port state controls were at first seen as a backup for flag state controls, today they are seen as the most important security tool when the port state has fulfilled its responsibilities and inspected ships to guarantee that they comply with regulations in treaties administered by the International Maritime Organization.
However, research has shown that although port state controls are key to improving marine safety, many problems remain. For example, in practice, less than one-quarter of all ships are inspected and there is a vast difference in implementation between nations.
Similar to the Green Island oil spill, aerial patrols have been carried out in other nations over the past 20 years, and while this has brought clear improvements, two big problems remain: determining criminal responsibility and massive spills that slip through the net due to areas and times that are not monitored.
A worrying prospect for Taiwan is that because the international community has made great progress, if enforcement in Taiwan remains comparatively lax, there is a risk that it could become a haven for vessels performing illegal activities — for example, cleaning out residual oil from their oil tanks, a very common occurrence.
The successful use of aerial patrols to crack down on illegal dumping of oil will depend on authorities’ sense of duty, ambition and ability to execute, but it must first be recognized that this is no easy task, in particular considering realistic conditions, such as low visibility at night, bad weather and deciding which areas to monitor.