Seabirds and fish stocks bear brunt of 60-mile slick

Strong winds push cargo from stricken tanker on to coast of north-west Spain
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The Independent Online

TONS OF stinking, viscous oil washed up along Spain's craggy north-western coast over the weekend, confirming the worst fears of the region's fishermen who predicted ecological disaster and wept yesterday to see their livelihood ruined.

Tons of stinking, viscous oil washed up along Spain's craggy north-western coast over the weekend, confirming the worst fears of the region's fishermen who predicted ecological disaster and wept yesterday to see their livelihood ruined.

Driven by strong winds, the stricken tanker Prestige, which had been hauled out to sea when it started listing and spilling thick fuel oil off the coast on Wednesday, changed course yesterday and headed back to shore.

A slick of some 5,000 tons of fuel oil lapped along 60 miles of the rocky Costa de la Muerte (coast of death) between Finisterre and La Coruña "as if a paintbrush had spattered all the rocks with black paint", in the words of one fisherman. Seabirds soaked in oil limped along the shore, their images spread across every front page in Spain yesterday.

Rafael Lema of the pressure group Ecologists in Action said in the coastal village of Camarinas: "There isn't a rock not stained by this corrosive black sludge." Mr Lema said he had taken 11 gulls and cormorants covered with oil to a wildlife recovery centre. He counted 200 more contaminated sea-birds through his binoculars, but had been unable to rescue them.

Environmentalists warned that worse catastrophe loomed if the 26-year-old Prestige broke up amid 22ft waves. The World Wide Fund for Nature said that if all 77,000 tons of oil on board leaked, it would be one of the largest spills, twice the size of that from the Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989.

The Spanish government played down the threat. "We do not have an ecological catastrophe nor do we foresee grave problems for fish stocks," said the Agriculture Minister, Miguel Arias Canete, speaking from Ciudad Real in La Mancha, hundreds of miles from the sea.

Galicia's regional government banned all fishing for shellfish – a principal earner in this economically poor region – just as fishermen were building up for the pre-Christmas season when prices peak. They had fished little in recent weeks, waiting for the mussels, cockles and goose barnacles, the crabs, shrimp and octopus, expensive delicacies much appreciated in Spain, to fatten up.

"But none are left. We've lost them all, one hundred per cent," lamented Ramon Bua, a spokesman for the fishermen. "What should we do now? Pack our bags?" he asked, in bitter allusion to Gallegos' centuries-old practice of emigration as the only escape from poverty. Fishermen reckon it could be six months before they can practise their trade again.

Local authorities are rolling out 11 miles of inflatable marine barriers to try to keep the black tide from invading three areas of environmental importance along the coast.

Spain said it had documents proving the Prestige was destined for Gibraltar. But Britain's ambassador to Madrid, Peter Torry, insisted the tanker "has nothing to do with Gibraltar" and dismissed suggestions to the contrary as nonsense.

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