“This is an oil spill of a type we haven’t seen before,” said Paul Johnston, a scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in England. “Working out the impact is actually a huge task — probably next to impossible.”
For China, the disaster has become a test of its ambitions as a global and regional steward of the seas, especially at a time when it is reinforcing its territorial claims, including disputed territories with Japan in these waters. Given its proximity, China has taken the lead in investigating the disaster and monitoring the spill, but it has faced some criticism for what some see as a slow and inadequate response thus far.
Officials in Beijing announced on Feb. 1 that samples of fish taken within four to five nautical miles of the sunken ship contained traces of petroleum hydrocarbons, suggesting possible condensate contamination; they pledged to expand the range of testing to 90 miles, and closely monitor fish coming into markets.
The threat of contamination has raised anxiety in the ports that cling to the rugged coastlines of Zhoushan’s islands, though such fears are usually expressed with quiet resignation lest one offend the government.
“The quality will go down because of the oil in the water,” Hai Tao, a fish wholesaler at the International Aquatic Product City in Putuo, a district on Zhoushan’s biggest island, said as he watched a ship unload hundreds of crates of mantis shrimp, a delicacy headed to restaurants across China.
The spill began on the evening of Jan. 6, when the Sanchi, a Panamanian-flagged, Iranian-owned tanker, collided with a cargo ship in waters roughly 160 nautical miles east of Shanghai. The Sanchi exploded and burned for more than a week before sinking. All 32 crew members are presumed dead.
Katya Popova, a senior research scientist at the National Oceanography Center in England, said there had not been a sufficiently coordinated international operation, and that was exacerbating the scale of the disaster.
The lack of visible devastation has almost certainly dampened public reaction that might have galvanized a more vigorous response.