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American Samoa: Shipwreck at Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Provided by James Maragos, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii

<p>Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service</p>

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Rose Atoll is an uninhabited coral atoll located in the South Pacific within the United States territory of American Samoa. It is a haven for marine species such as giant clams, sharks, sea cucumbers, urchins, and reef fish. The United States established Rose Atoll as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1973 under the management of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In October 1993, a 275-ton Taiwanese fishing vessel ran aground on the atoll’s shallow reef, resulting in a massive fuel and ammonium spill that killed corals and coralline algae along a quarter of the reef rim. Two weeks following the grounding, salvage tug operations were successful in removing only the bow section of the ship, leaving behind nearly 200 tons of metallic debris and 15 tons of non-metallic debris on the perimeter reefs and in the lagoon.1

Monitoring conducted a few months after the wreck revealed that the disintegration and corrosion of the ship was releasing dissolved iron into surrounding waters, which stimulated growth of cyano-bacteria (blue-green algae) on the grounding site and on neighboring reefs that were healthy before the wreck.2 In early 1999, the USFWS initiated removal of about 100 tons of debris and in 2004 the remaining 85 tons were removed. Over a decade of monitoring at the site has revealed that the reefs are now recovering rapidly. Furthermore, the United States established Rose Atoll as a Marine National Monument in January 2009, thus banning commercial fishing within 50 nautical miles (90 km) of the atoll.

<p>Photo credit: Wolcott Henry</p>

Photo credit: Wolcott Henry

The successful recovery of the reefs at Rose Atoll was due largely to the atoll’s status as an actively managed protected area, in combination with sufficient funding, effort, and expertise to monitor the injury to the atoll and its subsequent restoration. However, the financial costs associated with removing the debris and subsequent long-term monitoring were substantial. The high price tag and legal issues surrounding ownership and responsibility for damages has impeded action on removing debris from other grounding sites, especially in places where there are insufficient resources available to monitor and manage the reefs. Since the beginning of World War II, numerous shipwrecks have occurred on coral reefs, which have never been examined or inventoried.

Additional vessels will continue to accumulate on reefs unless preventive measures are taken. Such measures may include: increased on-site and remote surveillance at uninhabited reefs; regional treaties within coral reef states to limit foreign fishers; increased enforcement assets provided by major states; increased requirements for hull insurance for all vessels; and international treaties controlling unauthorized foreign fishing.

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  1. US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Impact of a Ship Grounding and Associated Fuel Spill at Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, American Samoa. (USFWS Pacific Islands Office, Honolulu, 1997). 

  2. Maragos, J. E. Review Draft: Reef and Coral Observations on the Impact of the Grounding of the Longliner Jin Shiang Fa at Rose Atoll, American Samoa. 21 (Program on Environment East-West Center, Honolulu, 1994). 

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