Satellite image of capsized Costa Concordia Ship captured from space
Satellite image of capsized Costa Concordia Ship captured from space Reuters

There is a looming environmental disaster since the Costa Concordia ran aground on Friday. Officials are worried that the 2,400-tons of diesel fuel may leak into Italy's west coast. The vessel is partially submerged off the Italian island of Giglio, which lies inside the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals.

According to CNN, the sanctuary was set up 10 years ago involving the nations of France, Italy and Monaco. Half of the designated area exists in international waters. Pelagos is a haven for a variety of marine species including the fin whale, sperm whale, bottlenose dolphin, tuna, swordfish and sharks. The area also supports sea bird populations.

Officials have already placed boons around the Coasta Concordia in an effort to prevent a disaster in case the oil should spill. This comes at a time when 20 people are still missing and 11 have been killed. The ship's Captain Francesco Schettino was arrested on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship. He has since been placed under house arrest.

In 2010, Greenpeace Pelagos reported ship congestion in the area and poor management of the sanctuary. The group warned of potential environmental hazards even then. Now, an environmental disaster looms over the region.

Impact on Aquatic Species

Environmentalists are especially concerned about the danger posed to aquatic species in the region. That entire area is a reserve for a reason; it is sensitive, said Sue Rocca, a biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), the leading global NGO dedicated to whale and dolphin conservation.

The WDCS was established in 1987 and has affiliates in Italy and has been keeping up with the Costa Concordia disaster.

Sperm whales inhabit the region and perceptible damage has already occurred. There have been a number of sperm whales that became stranded and washed up recently, not far from where the crash happened, she said.

The population of sperm whales in the Mediterranean is diminished. No estimate of population size exists for the region, but the total number of sperm whales in the Mediterranean is more likely in the hundreds than the thousands, reports the Cetacean Alliance.

Though Rocca specializes in whales and dolphins, she noted that a number of other aquatic animals have taken a beating in international waters. Swordfish and tuna are two depleted, if not endangered, species.

Fuel Leakage

Greenpeace Pelagos reported concerns in 2012 about ships in the sanctuary. If all this fuel is lost it is going to be a serious disaster, said Greenpeace Pelagos expert Alessandro Gianni. Fuel oil is much worse than diesel. It's sticky, very heavy. They must ensure they clean the tanks as fast as possible and then remove the shipwreck, he said at the time.

The Costa Concordia is a double-hulled ship, so it is in compliance with safety precautions that should prevent fuel leakage. However, if the weather takes a turn for the worst, that could prove ineffective.

The are concerned about weather. If the weather turns, the banging of the ship against the rocks could eventually wear it down and, if it punctures, any of those holes could cause the leak. In addition to being a sensitive area, it is close to shore so oil could get on land very quickly, biologist Sue Rocca said.

Bad weather has the potential to wreak havoc. New Zealand faced a similar problem. Three months ago, a cargo ship ran aground. Half of the ship began sinking into the ocean last week.

Damage from Debris

But, Rocca stated that fuel is not the only concern. The fuel is awful. But there is also other marine debris floating off, contributing to marine debris in the ocean which we already have a problem with. Debris from the ship could include everything from broken pieces of the vessel to pool chairs.

Sperm whales are particularly vulnerable to this. Sperm whales feed on giant squid, said Rocca. When foreign debris gets into their natural habitat, they often mistake it for food.

We have found whales off the coast of New Jersey with Zodiacs [an inflatable boat] in their stomachs. Boats have been found they think its food, she said. We have also found huge amount of trash in whales' stomachs, sweatpants, golf balls and 20-pounds of plastic.

Even balloons released by young children must be monitored. We see them feeding in areas where balloons float and [the whales] mistake the deflated balloon for jellyfish, Rocca said.

When these [facets] piggyback on top of one another, they can really have an impact.

International Conservation Efforts Need Improvement

The U.S. has some of the most comprehensive conservation laws. International laws, on the other hand, are in need of improvement. The U.S. has some of the best protections for marine animals with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, stated the biologist.

The government is required to go out and find out what exactly killed a certain whale. Other counties do not have that... they do not do autopsies to find out what killed those whales, Rocca added.

There are some calls from Italy's environmental minister [Corrado Clini] to stop the use of so-called ocean giants in these sensitive zones. I don't know what a sensitive zone is to him but the entire conservation zone [is delicate], said Roca.

Costa Cruises released a statement saying: We have engaged the services of a worldwide leader, a specialized salvage company to develop an action plan and help establish a protection perimeter around the ship.

A company spokesman added: The main risk is the fuel. We are not aware of any leakage. At the moment we are not aware of any other contents which could be a problem.