Brazilian ships have been deployed to stop a mysterious oil spill from spreading to the Abrolhos Marine National Park, authorities said on Tuesday. The park, located off the coast of Bahia state, is one of the largest coral reef systems in the country.
The announcement comes as Brazil is still grapples with a large oil spill of unknown origin that has been washing up on its coastline for over a month.
Some 254 beaches, mangroves and estuaries in nine states have been affected by the spill.
The oil has been identified as heavy crude, so dense that it can float below the surface of the water, which can make it difficult to detect and to contain its spread.
Brazil's federal environmental agency Ibama, state governments and the navy have all been involved in the cleanup efforts.
In a press conference, navy Admiral Leonardo Puntel said three ships were ready and at the reef. Two more ships were on the way and a helicopter will assist by conducting flyovers.
The team hopes to spot and retrieve any heavy crude before it can reach the protected area.
The government also announced on Tuesday that it would move to prohibit fishing in the affected areas during the months of November and December. Lobster and shrimp fishing would have to be halted, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery said, given "major pollution from chemical, physical and biological agents."
The mysterious origin of the spill is under investigation, but Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras said it likely came from Venezuela.
Petrobras' chief executive said on Tuesday that the spill could be the worst environmental "attack" in Brazil's history.
Venezuela's government has denied any involvement in the environmental disaster.
Government response criticized
As of October 21, some 600 tons of the oil have been recovered, as authorities also work to rehabilitate birds and sea turtles coated in the thick crude.
But a chorus of prosecutors, environmental experts and politicians have criticized the government's response to the spill, saying it has been too slow and the efforts insufficient.
Prominent Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre told AP that the government's elimination of several institutions that deal with disasters like the oil spill have contributed to the poor response.
"When the first of this oil reaches the beaches of northeast Brazil in early September, there is no committee: these people which were organized and could immediately have taken action at federal level, state level, private-sector level." Nobre said.
"No organization. It was a total mess," he added.
jcg/stb (AP, EFE)