Clean up the oil in sunken, disintegrating ships off Conception Harbour, says mayor

The wrecks have been leaking for years but it's particularly bad this summer, says Conception Harbour Mayor Craig Williams.

Problem has been ongoing for years; town's mayor says it's time to get it cleaned up

One of the sunken ships sticks out of the water. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Three sunken ships have been oozing sludge and oil into the waters off Conception Harbour and the town's mayor says it's time to get the oil out the wrecks.

The disintegrating whaling ships, abandoned in the 1960s, regularly produce sheens on the water, said Craig Williams.

"It's been on our radar for years, but this year seems to be the worst yet," Williams told the St. John's Morning Show.

Conception Harbour isn't the first town in Newfoundland to wrestle with a leaking shipwreck. For years, oil seeped from the Manolis L, a Liberian-flagged freighter that ran aground near Fogo Island and Change Islands in the 1980s. 

The work to remove the oil remaining on board was completed last fall, overseen by the Canadian Coast Guard.

Williams said the coast guard had to set up a rectangular boom around this summer's mess from the sunken whaling ships, but oil is seeping out beyond its perimeter.

Water is contaminated

The pollution is a particular problem during the recreational cod fishery, Williams said.

"Do we put a splitting table on the marina for the participants to split their fish? The water around the marina is contaminated with the oil," he said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada even put up a sign warning people not to eat shellfish from the water, he said.

The Canadian Coast Guard set up a boom to contain this year's sheen. (Submitted by Asterix Droneworks)

A coast guard spokesperson said an assessment of the ships is underway.

"The three ships are extremely rusted and deteriorated. Any underwater work will be restricted because of safety issues due to the condition of and the severe dilapidation and instability of the wrecks," they said in an emailed statement.

Could be good for tourism

The ships were built in the 1920s and were used for whaling in Labrador and near the South Georgia Islands, by Antarctica, according to Neil Burgess, president of the Newfoundland Shipwreck Preservation Society. 

Each is about 120 feet long, he said.

After the Hawke Harbour whaling station in southern Labrador burned down in 1959, the ships spent most of the 1960s tied up in Conception Harbour, at a wharf owned by the ships' owner.

This drone shot from 2017 shows a sheen spiraling from the wrecks. (Submitted by Asterix Droneworks)

They were part of a fleet of five whaling ships, Burgess said. The other two ships were towed away, but they sank somewhere in Conception Bay.

Nobody knows where those wrecks lie, Burgess said.

Burgess has been down to the three sunken ships and says the oil mostly comes from one of the wrecks.

"Toward August, when the when the water starts to warm up, the oil becomes a little more fluid and it starts leaking very slowly, little blobs coming out of one of the sunken wrecks," he said.

"It creates the sheen that we see on the water and it stains the boats and kayaks that come around. It's just a nuisance."

The Canadian Coast Guard said the terrible condition of the sunken ships make them risky for divers. (CBC)

Williams said the ships attract a lot of divers like Burgess and that they could be good for tourism.

"If we can just get the oil removed from the ships, that'd be great," he said.

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