Desperate fishermen fail to turn back oil tide

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The Independent Online

Thousands of Spanish fishermen fought a desperate battle yesterday to stop the black tide disgorged from the sunken oil tanker Prestige polluting Galicia's southern inlets and ruining nature reserves and Europe's finest mussel beds.

Thousands of Spanish fishermen fought a desperate battle yesterday to stop the black tide disgorged from the sunken oil tanker Prestige polluting Galicia's southern inlets and ruining nature reserves and Europe's finest mussel beds.

Villagers from the rias (inlets) of Arousa, Pontevedra and Vigo put to sea in small boats for a second day to tackle the floating carpets of stinking oil the size of football pitches. But amid the widely perceived paralysis of the Spanish government, neither the villagers' efforts, nor those of a flotilla of French, Dutch, British and Belgian skimmer boats could prevent the slick from lapping new beaches and covering already-cleared areas with a fresh layer of glistening black filth.

Locals railed against the authorities for failing to provide them with better equipment for their task than the home-made "butterfly" nets lined with plastic sheeting, waste bins and buckets that they were forced to use. Lois Castrillo, the Mayor of Vigo, said: "A fortnight ago they called us alarmists, but now we've got the slick on our doorstep and no one knows what to do."

In O Grove, at the mouth of the Ria de Arousa, where villagers complained two weeks ago that they had vainly requested barriers to stem the impending invasion, women constructed makeshift floating barriers from strung- together fishing nets and binliners stuffed with blankets. Villagers had to buy waterproof jackets and use their own plastic buckets.

Restaurateurs in O Grove organised a collection to buy gloves for those volunteers with the stomach to scoop up the heavy, fibrous, viscous muck with their hands. One fisherman vomited after returning to shore and in the Ria de Arousa a volunteer wearing a surgical mask fainted from the stench.

The government said it was sending an additional 324 containers to coastal villages engulfed by sludge. But in Bayona, a beauty spot and nature reserve at the mouth of the Ria de Vigo "kissed" – as they say with gallows humour – by the slick early yesterday, they were still waiting for supplies to arrive.

Julio Alonso, the fishermen's spokesman in Vigo, blamed official obstruction for difficulties in obtaining even face masks. "We confront a thousand and one problems in getting material because of bureaucratic problems," he said.

The Spanish government has now extended a fishing ban from Cedeira, north of Ferrol, to La Guardia on the Portuguese border, a coastal stretch of 567 miles.

Portugal, fearing the oil was heading for its shores, has strung four 200-metre floating barriers across the mouth of the Minho river that marks the border with Spain. Paulo Portas, Portugal's Defence Minister, said: "Because it's better to be safe than sorry, we have enacted precautionary measures. At the moment, we can say we're ready."

Mr Portas said the slicks covered 43 miles, with the nearest 16 miles from Portugal.

Portugal's meteorologists and scientists have become an invaluable source of information for Spaniards starved of news by their own officials. After days in which people have asked incredulously why the army has not taken a grip on the crisis, the Spanish army announced yesterday that it was supplying 3,500 mattresses, 3,500 pillows, 700 blankets, plus field tents, showers, towels and food trays for the expected arrival of 3,500 volunteers from all over Spain at the weekend, which is a long holiday.

But not a single Spanish anti-contamination ship is helping with the offshore clean-up and, in a nation whose life focuses on its long coastline; the only soldiers in action are Belgian. When volunteers arrive on these blighted shores tomorrow, they will find no one in charge.

Some have already given up, dispirited by the lack of thanks, hot food and equipment. But among the famously long- suffering and deferential Gallegos, fury is mounting alongside their despair, even an unprecedented spirit of insurrection.

When the provincial leader of La Coruña, Jose Luis Torres Colomer, showed his face in Aguino on Tuesday, one hardened seafarer, driven to tears of rage, hurled first insults, then his tar-soaked overall, in the face of the immaculately clad politician.

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