On May 9, 1996, the 846-foot Bahamian-flagged T/V Anitra was anchored in Delaware Bay’s Big Stone Anchorage. The ship was in the process of lightering, where oil is transferred to smaller vessels to lighten the tanker so it could proceed up the channel to the refinery, when oil was observed discharging from beneath the waterline. The ship was secured and boomed following the release, and skimming operations promptly began. The following morning, a steady stream of oil was observed extending 3.5 miles south-southeast from Anitra’s stern toward the ocean, followed by a 3.8-mile sheen. Within 72 hours, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) reported that 12,000 gallons were recovered in the vicinity of the vessel. It was originally believed that the oil was leaking from the vessel’s sea chest, but it was later determined that the spill was caused by a valve malfunction. On May 19, the USCG estimated that 42,000 gallons of Nemba and Cabinda light crude oils were discharged into Delaware Bay. Tarballs formed due the cold and stormy weather in the days following the spill.
On May 12, a Conservation Officer from the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife discovered tarballs along Higbee and Sunset Beaches on the bayside of Cape May. Tarballs of various densities began washing up along an eight-mile stretch of ocean beaches from Stone Harbor to Ocean City on May 17. Two days later, tarballs were observed as far north as Holgate. A State of Emergency was declared by the Governor of New Jersey, limiting public access to the beaches. Over 500 personnel were deployed for the clean-up, equipped with 50 boats, several oil skimmers, helicopters, and all-terrain vehicles.
Ultimately, about 50 miles of beaches in New Jersey were oiled over a two-week period, including several State Parks, Wildlife Management Areas, and the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. The spill occurred during the piping plover nesting season, resulting in the oiling of at least 51 adult plovers and two chicks. The spill also impacted beaches along the Delaware Bayshore during the horseshoe crab spawning season. Horseshoe crab eggs are an important food source for rufa red knots, a migratory shorebird that visits Delaware Bay every May so they can replenish their fat reserves. This is a critical stop along their long distance migration from Tierra del Fuego in South America to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic.