Shetland's clear waters conceal a sea of worries: Ten weeks after the Braer disaster, the oil has dispersed but the repercussions are only just beginning

THE CLIFFS are lined with seabirds noisily beginning to breed. The sea is a clear, beautiful blue and the sands of Quendale Bay look pristine. In coves recently full of crude oil, seals pop up to stare warily at humans.

At a glance, it appears as if the huge Shetland oil spill never happened. But beneath the surface an anxious, damaged community is struggling to counter the effects of what happened on 5 January. John Goodlad, secretary of the Shetland Fishermen's Association, said: 'The media preoccupation with wildlife was an irrelevance. Jobs, especially in fish, are where the real impact is.'

Shetlanders, who live further from London than the citizens of Bilbao or Turin, now feel even more isolated, and cynical. The international press rushed in, lured by the prospect of a compact paradise engulfed by slicks. But 12 days of huge waves and storm winds dispersed the oil; the disaster did not fulfill its potential. Most journalists left within a week.

The wreck at Garth's Ness has benefited some islanders. Mark Donaldson, manager of the nearby Sumburgh Hotel, had his establishment full to bursting point, day after day, during what is usually the quietest time of the year.

But hundreds of farmers, fish farmers and fishermen, and those in the industries that service them, have suffered disruption, uncertainty, and, for some, unemployment and ill health.

Dr Chris Rowlands, based in Levenswick, has a dozen patients who still suffer breathing problems or who show signs of liver damage from the oil fumes that swept the southern part of Mainland. 'I don't think it's psychological,' he said. 'I'd call these long-term symptoms.'

A 400-square-mile exclusion zone still surrounds the southern half of Mainland. No fish from this area can be sold because of the risks of oil contamination.

This weekend, two Norwegian fishing boats will visit the zone's salmon cages to collect the mature fish that would have been sold this year. They will be scooped into a tank, killed by carbon dioxide bubbles then taken to Norway. Two thousand tonnes of salmon, worth pounds 7m uncontaminated, will be minced and fed to farmed mink.

Martin Anderson, a salmon farmer, said: 'We may have had a lucky escaped compared to Prince William Sound (Alaska, site of the Exxon Valdez spill), but I have a pretty good idea that a small farm like ours won't survive this. People like the banks have lost confidence.'

In Commercial Street in Lerwick, the claims office run by the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF) and the Skuld Club, the protection and indemnity club to which the Braer's owner belongs, is busy. 'It's a nice, steady stream of work,' the manager, Fred Hurley, says.

So far more than pounds 700,000 has been paid to 84 individuals and firms, but these are interim amounts. Months, and perhaps years, of wrangling lie ahead. Some islanders living near the wreck want compensation for damage to physical and mental health and are still preparing their claims. Others merely want their oil-blown houses cleaned and repainted, and have already settled.

Four Shetland solicitors' firms have joined with nine off-island partnerships to form the Braer legal group. They represent claimants from large fish farms to small households. The IOPCF and Skuld Club have still to decide whether to negotiate with the group as sole representative of all the island claimants.

Yesterday, a petition signed by almost 6,000 Shetlanders, a third of the adult population, was handed to Lord Caithness, the Minister for Shipping, in London. It called for a public inquiry into all the circumstances surrounding the disaster. Lord Donaldson is heading a general inquiry into tanker safety around Britain which will be London-based. He has disappointed many islanders by making only one brief visit.

'The attitude in Westminster is contemptuous and indolent,' Isobel Mitchell from Nesbister, who organised the petition, said. 'True, the accident could have been far worse, but we see it as a terrible warning. Nothing has really changed to stop the same thing happening tomorrow.'

The latest Shetland Times reports that in the last week two oil tankers sailed inside the 10-mile avoidance zone around the islands. One passed within four miles of Sumburgh Head.

As for the wreck itself, only the black bow still juts above the waves. There is no sign of oil in the sea and rocks around, but the occasional whiff of crude wafts from the contaminated soil on the cliff top. Anyone who saw the Braer surrounded by stinking brown and black waves at the disaster's height would rejoice at the sea's appearance today.

Some islanders want the visible remains removed, but the bow might make a fitting memorial. To see it requires a long cross-country trek. Tommy Burgess, who farms the land at Garth's Ness, is fed up with strangers using the private road that leads to the cliff view. Last week, he blockaded it with tractors.

(Photograph omitted)

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