Sunken Tanker Gushes More Oil into Spanish Waters

PONTEVEDRA, Spain, November 22, 2002 (ENS) - From the ocean bottom off the northwest coast of Spain, the sunken oil tanker "Prestige" today leaked thousands of tons of oil into the sea causing a massive new oil slick that appears to be a major threat to wildlife and fish populations along the coast.

Local government officials say the tanker has sprung a leak from its holds, which originally contained a total cargo of 77,000 metric tons (22 million gallons) of heavy fuel oil. Satellite pictures from the the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency show the enormous new oil slick on the sea where the tanker sank about 60 miles offshore.

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The oil spill can be seen as dark areas in this November 21 image taken by the IKONOS satellite from 423 miles in space. (Photo courtesy NASA)
The "Prestige," broke in two and sank off the Spanish coast Tuesday, initially fouling 120 kilometers (75 miles) of the Spanish Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, with at least 4,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. The new gush of oil from the sunken ship is distressing to conservationists working to stem the damage.

"If this comes ashore it could be a far worse wildlife crisis than we have had to deal with so far," said Jay Holcomb, the leader of International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) Emergency Relief oil spill team, which is working with Xunta, the local wildlife authority for the Spanish province of Galicia.

IFAW and Xunta today opened a new rehabilitation center to help save wildlife caught in the oil slick from the "Prestige."

The temporary center has taken in its first 50 sea birds and by tomorrow another 100 are expected to arrive. The birds are being transferred from two other rehabilitation facilities that have acted as collection points.

"This new center is vital if we are to save the birds that have already been rescued and those that are now coming ashore," said Holcomb. "Our other great concern is that there is a vast slick just off the coast at present and if that comes ashore we are going to have a large number of oiled birds needing to be rescued and rehabilitated."

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Environmental officer from Xunta, the regional environmental authority, rescues an oiled bird while a group of local residents learns of the oil spill's impact. (Photo courtesy Xunta)
The rehab center has been set up in a building provided by the forestry department in Pontevedra, close to the coastline that has been affected by the spill. It includes a dedicated kitchen with freezers to prepare food for the birds, a stabilization room with holding pens where they are tubed with fluids, facilities for blood tests, a wash and rinse area, and recovery pools.

"It is critical that the birds are given the right treatment if they are to survive. Many are extremely weak and this new facility will provide their best chance of making it. They are suffering from hypothermia, and dehydration when they arrive. Our experienced rehabilitators, which includes veterinarians, can now provide the care they need," said Holcomb.

The first critically endangered Balearic shearwater has been reported oiled by the Prestige spill according to the latest official data from wildlife recovery centers in Galicia, Spain, the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife) said today.

Balearic shearwaters are dispersing into the Atlantic Ocean from breeding colonies in the Balearic Islands at the moment, traveling through the coastal waters off the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic coasts.

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Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus (Photo courtesy Ricard Gutiérrez)
This species numbers an estimated 1,750 to 2,125 pairs. It was recently identified as critically endangered during the preparation of the new edition of the Spanish Red List of Threatened Birds by the IUCN-World Conservation Union.

As of Thursday, 29 dead oiled birds had been collected, and 260 oiled birds had been sent to rehabilitation centers for cleaning. This is in addition to the 250 birds recorded oiled on the coast by SEO/BirdLife volunteers earlier this week.

The most affected species are razorbill, gannet and guillemot. Birds that dive underwater or swim on the surface are particularly vulnerable to oil slicks, says BirdLife International. Seabirds are most vulnerable during breeding, over-wintering or the moulting seasons when they tend to congregate in large numbers on or close to the sea.

Oil destroys the waterproofing properties of feathers. "Once wet, oiled birds often succumb to hypothermia," BirdLife says. "Water-logged feathers are heavy, making flight difficult or impossible, and reduced buoyancy can lead to drowning. Birds often ingest oil while preening which results in poisoning."

IFAW's Holcomb explained how the oiled birds are treated at the recovery center. "The birds are firstly stabilized by getting their temperatures back up to acceptable levels and by being tubed fluids. They are then fed fluids and food until blood tests, which check for infection and anemia, show they are strong enough to be washed."

"Next they need to recover their waterproofing and recondition in tanks prior to their being released back into the wild. This process depends on the state of each bird, but can take anything from several days to a few weeks," Holcomb said.

Finding somewhere to release the birds will be difficult with so much of this coast affected by the spill, he said. "We will take the advice of the local wildlife experts to determine where best to do this."

Since the Prestige sank more than 160 birds have been rescued, including gannets, razorbills, cormorants, guillemot, kittiwake, and gulls. The seas around the coastal islands close to Pontevedra is a national maritime park and one of the country's most important areas for migratory birds and other marine wildlife.

BirdLife International is today calling on the European Commission (EC) to urgently adopt new measures that strengthen marine safety and liability regulations to help prevent future oil spills such as the Prestige disaster.

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The Bahamian owned, Greek operated tanker Prestige in Spanish waters just before she sank. (Photo courtesy Xunta)
"The Prestige oil spill shows that it is imperative the European Commission urgently adopt new measures that strengthen marine safety and liability regulations to help prevent future oil spills such as the Prestige disaster", said Miguel Naveso, head of BirdLife International European Community Office in Brussels.

"Approximately every three years the coastline of Europe is being devastated by a major oil spill. On this basis we will have to suffer another four spills before single-hulled tankers are due to be phased-out in 2015," he said. The European Union has adopted regulations and directives to strengthen European legislation on marine safety, which, if implemented would improve on existing International Marine Organization standards and guidelines. These make up the so-called Erika Package which covers "immediate actions" (Erika I) and "long-term measures" (Erika II).

"We could have avoided the "Prestige" oil spill," Vice President in charge of Transport and Energy Loyola de Palacio told the European Parliament Thursday.

If all the proposals made by the European Commission had been fully adopted and implemented, both the Erika I and Erika II packages, the spill would not have happened, she said.

"The accident with the "Pestige" underlines that the measures agreed at Community level after the "Erika" incident [in December 1999] address the heart of the matter and need to be fully implemented urgently," she said. "Therefore I have written to all Member States to call them to accelerate and anticipate as far as possible the new EU legislation."