'Tens of thousands' of animals in oil spill firing line

The number of animal species in the path of the Timor Sea oil spill is larger than previously thought, according to WWF-Australia.

Its report reveals that up to 15 species of whale and dolphin, more than 30 seabirds and five types of turtle can be found in the area covered by the slick.

Still uncapped after four weeks, the spill now covers an area up to 100 times the size of Sydney Harbour.

The report, compiled by Melbourne-based consultant ecologist Simon Mustoe and released yesterday, says the area may be host to 30,000 individual sea snakes and 16,000 turtles.

WWF-Australia conservation director Gilly Llewellyn said the spill was an environmental threat, despite being about 150km off the coast. "We need to shatter the myth that an oil spill only affects marine wildlife when it washes up on our beaches," she said.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett said he had devised an environmental action plan for the incident, amid fears the slick could reach nearby Ashmore Reef.

A Federal Environment Department team investigating the reef has so far found nine birds - either common noddys or brown boobys - affected by the spill, four of which have died.

Dr Llewellyn said seabirds were likely to be particularly vulnerable to the oil because of the amount of time they spent on the sea surface. Other species that could come into contact with the slick included Fraser's dolphins and green and flatback turtles.

WWF-Australia conservationists will visit the affected area in a surveillance vessel next Thursday to document the slick's effects more accurately.

Laws granting Resources Minister Martin Ferguson powers to conduct an inquiry into the spill passed the Senate yesterday.

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