Why was the Prestige in such a sensitive marine area?

Posted: 26 November 2002

On November 15, The Prestige oil tanker broke up and sank off northern Spain, with a 70,000 ton cargo of heavy industrial oil which began to wash up on the pristine Galacian coast. Here, Dr Simon Cripps, head of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme, asks what can be done to prevent yet more disasters of this sort.

Standing on the beach near the village of Caion, seeing the heavy black sludge that covers the beaches and headlands and knowing more is on its way, many questions spring to mind. Why was an old single-hulled oil tanker chosen to carry such a dangerous cargo? Did it by-pass routine maintenance checks? Who is responsible for the accident? Who will pay for the damage? What will happen to the 60,000 tonnes of oil that went down with the Prestige?

These are all important questions, and need to be answered. But there's another question that has not been so often asked: why was an oil tanker anywhere near the Galician coast in the first place?

Spanish soldiers undertaking clean up workon a beach near the village of Caion.© WWF/Raúl GarcíaThe Prestige should never have been where it was. It carried a load of heavy industrial fuel - one of the worst possible types of oil to spill - into an area rich in marine and bird species and where over 60 per cent of the local population depend on fishing for their livelihood. Added to this, once the tanker started leaking its cargo, it was towed out to sea where it sank within the Galicia Bank - a sea mount, or underwater mountain, with very high biodiversity that WWF has proposed be designated as a Marine Protected Area.

The effects of the oil already in the water and coating the coastline are serious. Current estimates are that 4,000 Galician fishermen and up to 28,000 people in associated industries will be out of work. The area's fisheries are likely to be affected for as many as 10 years, and impacts on the environment may well be evident for the next 20-30 years. And, as bad as it is now, if the 60,000 tonnes of oil still in the tanker are not contained, the effects will be catastrophic.

Media attention has highlighted the dangers of single-hulled oil tankers and the need for stricter maintenance regulations, and is now turning to assigning blame for the accident. But we need to remember that even with strict ship design and maintenance laws, and even if oil and shipping companies are held accountable for spills, accidents will still happen.

Shipping carries 80 per cent of international trade. There will always be groundings, collisions, and other accidents that not even the best of rules can prevent. It's not enough to focus solely on reducing the likelihood of future oil spills. Governments also need to ensure that spills don't occur in vulnerable marine areas.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) already has the capacity to do this. In 1991, the IMO adopted the concept of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas - areas vulnerable to damage by international shipping activities that need special protection because of their ecological, economic, cultural, or scientific significance.

Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas are marked on international nautical charts, and mariners are required to extra care when navigating through them. Coastal states can also adopt additional protective measures for these areas to guard against particular risks associated with international shipping. These include banning single-hull vessels, identifying areas to be avoided and recommended routes, requiring experienced pilots on board when ships pass through these areas, and requiring mandatory reporting as ships transit sensitive areas.

Heavy oil pooled amongst the rocks,Cabo Vilán, Galicia© WWF/Raúl GarcíaA network of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas together with strict shipping regulations tailored for each area would help reduce the impact of future oil, and other, spills.

The tragedy is that in the 11 years since Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas were introduced, only 5 have been designated worldwide. The Galician coastline is not one of them.

Over 300 ships have sunk off the Galician coast in the past 100 years. A Particularly Sensitive Sea Area designation for this area could not have prevented the Prestige oil spill, but could have helped minimize risks to humans and wildlife in this and other sensitive coastal regions.

Previous oil spills have already led to improved shipping practices and regulations. The US introduced a phase-out of single-hulled oil tankers by 2015 after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The 1999 Erika oil spill off the coast of France prompted the IMO to speed up their phase-out deadline to match that of the US, and also led to EU maritime laws being strengthened. While these laws are slow to come into effect and could still be further tightened, they are an essential step towards reducing the likelihood of future oil spills.

Hopefully the Prestige oil spill will be the catalyst for the next phase in the process: ensuring that any future spills do not affect vulnerable marine areas. This would help provide both people and wildlife with further protection against future shipping disasters.

Dr Simon Cripps is Director of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme.

  • WWF reported in late January 2003 that both the Galician and the southwestern French coasts arerepeatedly impacted by oil slicks.

    The Spanish Environment Ministry also reported that 654 beaches have been affected at various levels by the Prestige oil spill on the Atlantic coast. In the first two months since the spill started, between 65,000 and 130,000 birds have been affected.

    WWF reports (April 9, 2003) that an ambitious plan has been started to remove about 37,000 tonnes of oil from the wreck of the Prestige lying more than 3,5 kilometres below the surface. As an interim measure, until now holes that were leaking oil have been patched up by a mini submarine. It is reported that Repsol, the company employed to carry-out the removal of the oil, has 3 options. Firstly, a valve will be attached to the wreckage, and the oil which seeps out (apparently due to gravity) will be captured in bags and ferried to the surface. Secondly, if this is unsuccessful, a canopy will be suspended over the wreck to capture escaping oil. As a last resort, the most technically complex method of pumping out the oil will be resorted to.

    Related links:

    Spanish seafood 'poisonous from oil spill' (Guardian report, November 7, 2003)

    Disasters Waiting to Happen