ON first entry into a healthy mangrove, the smells, sounds and sights of life are immediate and abundant.
When the Express took a trek into Otaheite’s Aripero mangrove last Sunday, none of the signs of a thriving swamp were evident.
There were none of the three species of tiny mangrove crabs that, in a normal environment, spend their days running in the thousands up and down the aerial roots of the mangrove trees — eating, fighting and mating as part of the cycle of life in the swamp.
Instead, this reporter spotted only two of the creatures after almost an hour inside the mangrove, both covered in oil and moving slowly around.
It was no wonder that they were absent — the roots that accommodate their social lives were covered in black crude oil, washed ashore following a series of oil spills from Petrotrin sources that started on December 17 last year.
Without the little crabs and snails, the birds also stayed away. The crabs also form an important part of the food chain for fish but with the water slicked with oil, the fish were absent too.
The roots of the mangrove were covered with oysters, now dead in the thousands.
If not for the whirr of engines and the braying of backhoes, as clean-up crew members from Kaizen Limited worked to wash the mangrove clean, the swamp would have been silent.
“We used to get some Scarlet Ibis coming here. I wonder where they will go now,” pondered fisherman Nazim “Max” Mohammed.
Gone was the earthy scent of brackish water, replaced by the heady odour of gasoline.
In the water, large black globules of oil floated, forming odd shapes as they were carried by the current.
It would have been fascinating to watch for fisherman Mohammed, if not for the fact that the rubbery shapes spelled death for the mangrove that supports his community.
“The mangrove looks dead,” Mohammed said, “This is not at all what you would see when everything was alright.”
Mohammed’s calm tone was in spite of the sheer panic facing Otaheite’s large fishing community.
The ‘mang’, as they call it is a breeding ground for crabs, fish, oysters and conch.
Last Sunday, a clean-up crew member described the area as a “disaster zone” and said the oil slick appeared to have crept up to four miles into the mangrove, taking all life with it since the tide has washed the aerial roots with oil up to four feet high in some places.
Every hour during low tide, a small crew takes a dinghy up the river, spraying the banks and roots with Simple Green, a detergent product the crew described as being environmentally friendly.
A Google search yesterday showed Simple Green, which is produced by a US company called Sunshine Makers, was at first criticised by international environmentalists for the ingredient 2-butoxyethanol (Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether) or (EGBE), which had tested positive as carcinogen.
The company last year removed the chemical from the cleaner and invested US$3 million in safety testing.
With Otaheite being home to the country’s largest fresh seafood depot, the community now faces hardship for an unlimited time to the come.
While the clean-up crew who spoke to the Express said their efforts appeared to be going well, some of them acknowledged that the damage already done was extensive.
“It goes far into the river,” one crew member acknowledged. “Getting the mangrove back to normal is not going to be a simple thing.”
Otaheite is already being shunned by customers fearful of putting contaminated fish on their tables.
“Business is at a standstill,” said Mohammed, who was mostly silent during the trek into the mangrove, which he attributed to the shock and pain over what he was seeing.
“We have no fish to sell. We have no living to make right now. And look at this, everything is dead. It is painful for the people who love the mangrove,” he said.
Back at the depot, it was not a typical Sunday.
Usually crowded with customers jostling each other to buy every last fish, retail vendors puttered around, having come out in the hope that a few boats might come in with saleable catch.
“They are telling us to go and buy from other ports but it doesn’t work so,” said retail fish vendor, Vijay Cyril, a 34-year-old father of three.
“You can’t go and jumbie another vendor on his territory. That could mean death for some of us.”
Cyril and 20-odd vendors who make their living at the depot have been out of business since Christmas.
They are hoping to be included in any compensation package offered by the state or Petrotrin.
“It is only fair,” said Avinash Battoo.
“They destroyed our living since before Christmas.”