Iranian oil tanker Sanchi burns in the East China Sea on January 13 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Shanghai Maritime Search and Rescue Centre
Iranian oil tanker Sanchi burns in the East China Sea on January 13 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Shanghai Maritime Search and Rescue Centre

Tokyo/Beijing — A stricken Iranian tanker that sank in the East China Sea on Sunday in the worst oil-ship disaster in decades has produced a large oil slick, say Chinese media and Japanese authorities, amid mounting fear of damage to the marine ecosystem.

The tanker Sanchi had been adrift and ablaze after crashing into the freighter CF Crystal on January 6.

Strong winds had pushed it away from the Chinese coast, where the incident happened, and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

The Japan Coast Guard said oil spread over an area 13km long and 11km wide, although it said the slick was shrinking as patrol boats battled to contain it.

The coast guard said the fire on the sea surface was put out at about 2am GMT on Monday, although according to other authorities and Chinese state TV CCTV black smoke continued to billow from the site of the sinking for several more hours.

A clean-up effort has begun and rescue teams have called a halt to the large-scale search for survivors, reducing it to "normal" operations, CCTV said.

The Sanchi’s crew of 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis are believed to have died in the incident, which marks the biggest tanker spill since 1991, when 260,000 tonnes of oil leaked off the Angolan coast.

The East China Sea was known for its rich, although polluted, marine ecosystem that includes whales, porpoises and sea birds, said Rick Steiner, a US marine scientist with experience of oil spills.

Greenpeace said that the explosion and sinking occurred in "an important [fish] spawning ground".

"At this time of year the area is used as a wintering ground by common edible species such as hairtail, yellow croaker, chub mackerel and blue crab. The area is also on the migratory pathway of many marine mammals, such as humpback whale, right whale and grey whale," Greenpeace said.

Highly flammable oil

The blazing vessel, which was carrying 136,000 tonnes — almost 1-million barrels — of condensate, an ultralight, highly flammable crude oil, sank on Sunday after several explosions had weakened the hull.

Japanese authorities lost track of the tanker as of 8.40am GMT on Sunday. The ship’s last confirmed location was about 315km west of Sokkozaki on the island of Amami Oshima, one of the northern islands in the Ryukyu chain.

Japan sent two patrol boats and an aeroplane to the area to search for missing crew members and assess the latest situation, the spokesman said.

The Shanghai Maritime Bureau said these, along with a South Korean patrol boat, were among the vessels  carrying out emergency response work.


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