France spreads fishing nets to fight oil spill

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The Independent Online

Fresh waves of oil from the sunken tanker Prestige swept ashore along a 125-mile stretch of French coastline yesterday, with pollution experts admitting they were struggling to stop a disaster that has already blackened dozens of beaches from La Rochelle to the Spanish border.

Fresh waves of oil from the sunken tanker Prestige swept ashore along a 125-mile stretch of French coastline yesterday, with pollution experts admitting they were struggling to stop a disaster that has already blackened dozens of beaches from La Rochelle to the Spanish border.

As two naval ships and several trawlers set out with fine nets yesterday in an attempt to trap a bank of millions of tiny oil pellets 25 miles offshore, the tourist industry in southern Brittany feared a new ecological nightmare, just three years after the Erika disaster.

The latest oil spill – denounced by a furious President Chirac on Friday as the work of ''gangsters of the sea'' – comes several weeks after the Liberian-registered single-hulled tanker began taking water off Spain on 13 November. It sank off the Galician coast six days later with 77,000 tons of crude aboard and is believed still to be spewing oil.

All through Saturday reports came in of new discoveries of the pellets and semi- solid cakes of oil, including in the Bassin d'Arcachon, where the Arès reserve is home to 700,000 migrating birds at this time of year.

Tourism officials in the south-west – which every year attracts 2.5 million holidaymakers – said the effects of the Prestige spill should not be "over-dramatised". Laurent Joubert, a volunteer at the Arès sanctuary, said: "For the moment the effect on birds is nothing like as bad as after the Erika in December 1999. The spill is more spread out."

While residents of the island of Ré, off Rochefort at the northern end of the spill, had not yet seen evidence of oil, they were fearful of a repeat of the Erika disaster which wiped out tourism. ''The oil is only 60 miles away. Three seasons after the Erika spill, we are just recovering – the Dutch and Germans are only now beginning to make their bookings,'' said Catherine Senad, a tourism manager.

Beach clean-up supervisors have been told to turn away volunteers because of the toxicity of the oil. Fire officers who have begun collecting pellets one by one, by hand wear special suits, face masks and gloves.

Christian Rousseau, the co-director of Cèdre, the scientific body advising on the clean-up, said: "We have had the Torrey Canyon, the Amoco Cadiz and the Erika – you would think we had a solution. But every oil spill is different and, each time, the requirements change every day."

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