Scots seek strict legal controls to prevent another 'Prestige' disaster

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The Independent Online

Fears of an environmental disaster like that caused by the Prestige sinking off the Spanish coast have prompted calls for tighter controls over ships passing through the narrow channel separating the Western Isles from mainland Scotland.

Fears of an environmental disaster like that caused by the Prestige sinking off the Spanish coast have prompted calls for tighter controls over ships passing through the narrow channel separating the Western Isles from mainland Scotland.

The Minch is one of the richest and most diverse marine wildlife areas in Britain. Its waters are used by several dolphin, porpoise and whale species and is of international importance to many types of birds and a large number of common and grey seals.

The World Wide Fund for Nature believes the Minch and the waters around Orkney and Shetland are of world-class conservation value.

But more than 400 bulk carriers and tankers transporting oil, chemicals and other hazardous materials travel through the Minch each month, passing within a mile of the coast of Skye and through waters only 70ft deep in places – which is only 10ft more than the draught of many tankers. An estimated 20 per cent of all British crude oil traffic passes through the Minch. The route is a favoured one for crews because it can cut 45 miles and three hours off the route west of the Hebrides.

After the sinking of the Prestige and a recent incident off Skye when a nuclear submarine was damaged when it hit the seabed, Highland council is calling for a crackdown on safety regulations.

Many councillors had been warning for years of the potential for environmental catastrophe and the need to restrict movement of shipping in the Minch. They believe the movement of oil tankers and vessels carrying hazardous cargoes must be controlled and policed by coastguards to avoid an incident that could devastate tourism, fishing and fish farming.

Highland council would like to see the right of innocent passage abolished and the Minch become a controlled waterway. To try to achieve its aims, the local authority is to host an international seminar next year of interested countries, including Spain, France, Norway, Sweden and Canada, in an effort to agree an international policy that protects the most vulnerable countries from the threat of a spill.

Bill Fulton, a former shipping agent and councillor for Kyle of Lochalsh and Sleat, said: "The Highlands of Scotland have many small coastal communities, which depend on the sea and on fishing and aquaculture and tourism.

"But we are under threat from oil tankers and other ships carrying dangerous cargoes. Large ships sail through the Minch and the Pentland Firth; both are narrow and dangerous channels.

" Aegean Sea, which sank off Spain in 1992, had passed through the Minch 48 hours earlier, demonstrating that we are facing a common danger.

"We believe more should be done to stop ships carrying dangerous cargoes from using coastal waters where their presence endangers the local economy. The economy of the Highlands could be destroyed in the event of a tanker disaster."

At present, all tankers using the Minch are encouraged to contact coastguards before entering the area to inform the authorities of their details, seek advice on navigating the narrow channel and receive information on any potential shipping hazards. The scheme is voluntary, though, and Highland council fears that the most dangerous ships do not register their presence.

"Any old rust bucket can pass through the Minch at the moment and the vessels which tend to adhere to the voluntary code are the ones which probably present the lowest risk," Mr Fulton said.

"We would like to see a legal requirement whereby the captain would have to tell us what cargo his ship is carrying, where the ship is coming from and where it is going, what flag she operates under and who owns her."

The authorities also estimate that at least 12 per cent of ships using the Minch ignore the safety advice when passing through the mile-wide channel.

Even those that do register their presence often fail to stick to recognised shipping lanes, leading to a big increase in the chance of a collision.

John Farquhar Munro, MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, said: "The recent shipping disaster off Spain has brought home the importance of making certain that we do all we can to protect our fragile coastline." He wants the government to reconsider the guidelines for ships with dangerous cargoes, and their passage past Scotland's coastline.

"Many ships with hazardous cargoes pass by Scotland's coastline every day. Perhaps the time has come to rethink whether this should continue.

"We've already had one major oil spill in recent years when the Braer tanker grounded off Shetland in 1993. Thankfully, extreme weather conditions lessened the impact of the slick. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

"I dread to the think of the consequences of a similar incident in an area such as the Minch. Even a minor spill could have a major impact. The flush of water through the Minch is poor, and it's a very sheltered stretch of sea. It would take years for an oil slick, or another hazardous leak to be dispersed.

"Put simply, the effects of a shipping disaster in the Minch would be catastrophic. It is very likely that the sea farming, scallop fishing and tourism industries would be wiped out. The local beaches would be ruined and colonies of local wildlife would be destroyed."