November 2002 - Spain oil spill: potential impacts

What can we expect from this spill?

Economic Impacts
Clean-up impacts (updated 28.01.03)
Species impacts

Economic Impacts
In total, 915 kilometres of coastline (the entire Atlantic coastline of Galicia) have been closed to fishing and shellfish gathering, affecting 90,000 people whose livelihood depends directly on these activities. The Spanish government has promised financial compensation for losses sustained by the fishermen, in an area which is famous for its shellfish, octopus and crabs.

30,000 shellfish gatherers are affected in the Ria de Arousa, one of the largest shellfish beds in the world.

Other sources are also reporting the following:

  • The ship's insurers, the London Steamship Owners' Mutual Association have said that around US$25 million will be made available to meet immediate compensation claims.

  • Up to US$180 million will later be available through the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPC).

  • The European Commission has said it will provide 117.7 million Euros in aid to Spanish fishermen to help cover losses.

  • Local authorities have already promised 30 Euros per day for fishermen while they are out of work.

  • The fishing industry in Galicia is worth 300 million Euros per annum

  • The Spanish government has said that it would sue the Liberian owners of The Prestige for damages estimated to be in excess of £30 million.

Clean-up Impacts
When oil reaches shore, a significant portion sinks into the bottom sediments, from where it gradually leaks and continuously contaminates the environment.

It is of utmost importance therefore to collect as much oil as possible before the oil slicks reach the shore. If oil does reach the shore then, depending on the type of shoreline affected, a number of options are available.

WWF's position on cleanup options

Cleanup update 28 January 2003
Official data from the Spanish Environment Ministry indicates that a total of 654 beaches have been affected at various levels by the Prestige oil spill on the Atlantic coast (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Basc Country). According to the data, 1064 beaches have been counted on this coast.

In Galicia alone, 452 beaches have been affected, with 250 of them now considered as "apparently clean", which means that the surface of the sand is clean but that fuel might be present under the surface having sunk through the sand. The other 202 beaches are still contaminated by fuel, either on their surface or in the rocks around them.

Cleaning-up cliffs and rocks is much more difficult and sensitive than clean-up operations on the beaches, and only a small percentage of them are being addressed. Some protected areas have reportedly been impacted by heavy machinery used for cleaning-up, where dunes and sand banks have been damaged. In the most sensitive areas, WWF believes that the best solution is to let the sea clean up the oil.

Species Impacts
The main concern revolves around the effects of toxic oil compounds such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Laboratory studies have shown that exposing salmon and flounder to oil can result in the inhibition of male sexual development. In sea birds, oil can cause mortality and reduced hatching of eggs, with the PAH components being the most toxic.

Marine worms (Rag worms) have also been shown to no longer produce eggs and sperm in areas where high levels of PAHs are found. In addition, PAHs have been shown to have possible links with tumours found in beluga whales inhabiting the St Lawrence River.

It has also been shown that the toxicity of PAHs to aquatic species can be increased significantly in the presence of ultraviolet light (sunlight).

The best information we can provide on the species in this area can be found on the OSPAR site - NOTE: this will download a pdf file 347kb. An abbreviated list of impacted species can also be found on this site.

  • 22 November: WWF - together with Birdlife - is coordinating the rescue centers, where about a hundred birds are currently being treated, and more are being brought. However, according to veterinarians, this is probably only 10 per cent of the birds that have been affected so far.

  • 25 November: The wildlife rescue centers are currently treating some 400 oiled birds, but up to 8,000 are now believed to have been affected. Luckily, the mortality rate is so far very low, with only 35 dead birds reported. However, the toll could rise significantly in the coming days given the inaccessibility of this particular coastline and people's ability to consequently find oiled animals.

  • 6 December: Some 1,000 birds are being treated in the rescue centers. So far, the mortality rate after or during treatment is very low, at around 5 per cent. Another 1,000 birds have been found dead. Usually, only 5 per cent of birds that are affected by the fuel are found, which means 20,000 individuals may have been impacted by the oil. The most pessimistic specialists fear that up to 100,000 birds could have died, as it is wintering and migratory time. They are mainly concerned by the fate of Iberian guillemots, as out of the 22 pairs (44 birds) known to live in the area, 12 birds have already been found dead.

  • 28 January 2003: A total of 13,221 oiled birds (3,873 live and 9,348 dead) of 62 different species were recovered from the coasts of Spain, Portugal and France between 16th November 2002 and 16th January 2003 according to a new report from the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife).

The total number of birds affected during the first two months of the Prestige oil spill was between 65,000 and 130,000. The most affected species continue to be Guillemot (5,691 live and dead), Razorbill (2,248 live and dead) and Puffin (1,877 live and dead).

Historical Impact

This disaster follows another oil spill in same area in 1992, when approximately 30,000 tonnes of oil was spilled by the Aegean Sea tanker. The tanker grounded and burst into flames just outside the mouth of the Galician port of Coruna.

That spill, which followed a similar disaster with the tanker Urquiola 16 years earlier, devastated 130 miles of coastline. Many believe this area is yet to recover.

There are comparisons being drawn with the Exxon Valdez incident. Below is a comparison table that we will update as and when new facts come in.

This spill (2002)

  • 74,000 tonnes of heavy oil being carried
  • 200 km of coastline already covered
  • US$100 million in estimated costs

Exxon Valdez (1990)
  • 38,800 tonnes of crude oil spilt
  • 2,100 km of coastline affected
  • US$210 million clean up cost
  • 250,000 seabirds dead (est.)
  • 2,800 sea otters dead (est.)
  • 300 harbor seals dead (est.)
  • 250 bald eagles dead (est.)
  • 22 killer whales dead (est.)

More from Reuters on the history of spills...

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