November 7, 2003
Spanish Seafood Poisoned By Oil Spill
Pollution from the oil tanker Prestige, which sank a year ago in Spain, may make fish dangerous for 10 years, WWF warns.
Pollution from the Prestige oil tanker spill is far worse and more widespread than the authorities have admitted, and marine scientists warned yesterday that fish and shellfish from Spain may be poisonous for up to 10 years.
A study by the environment group WWF published to coincide with the first anniversary of the tanker's sinking, contains stinging criticism of the Spanish government for prematurely opening the Galician fisheries and failing to clean up oil lying in shallow waters.
"Personally I would not eat Spanish shellfish, and as a precaution I would advise anyone travelling there to avoid doing so," Simon Walmsley, WWF's marine pollution expert said.
"After the Braer disaster in Shetland in 1993, parts of the shellfish industry [lobsters and mussels] were closed for seven years. The pollution in Spain is far worse than in the Shetlands, but the fishery opened after two months. There is no doubt in my mind that should not have happened."
The report - Prestige one year on, a continuing disaster - says that toxic pollutants from the oil were quickly absorbed by shellfish and crabs, and this could lead to potentially serious consequences for both the crustaceans and for people eating them.
The report says that between 5,000 - 10,000 tons of oil are still floating in slicks off the Spanish, French and English coasts; others put the figure at 24,000 tons.
A large slick from Prestige was seen recently in the Irish Box, a 50-mile long prime fishing area off the Irish coast, created to protect fish stocks.
Investigations at the wreck of the Prestige - a single - hulled tanker which sank after splitting in two during a storm off the north-west coast of Spain on November 19 last year - show that it spilled 64,000 tons of oil, 60% more than was originally estimated. About 13,000 tons remain in the wreck.
More than 2,000 miles of coastline, from the Isle of Wight to the Canary Islands, has been polluted.
Despite the Spanish government claim that the area is recovering well, villagers say that catches of inshore fish and harvests of shellfish are down by 80%. A large amount of oil did not reach the beaches but sank to the bed of shallow coastal waters; this affected the habitat of sea bass, octopus, crabs and shrimps that are valued commercially, and raising concern about a serious risk of contamination by toxic pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Unpublished data collected by the University of La Coruna for fishermen's groups show that mussels, barnacles and sea urchins have a high level of PAHs. Fish and octopuses are also shown to have significant PAH levels.
WWF says that the fishermen feared publishing all the data since doing so could wreck their markets. Raul Garcia, the marine officer at WWF-Spain and author of the report, said: "We are trying to persuade them it is in everyone's interest to be open... We need more research and [the fishermen] need help."
Preliminary studies along the shore suggest that there has been substantial damage, comparable to that which occurred after the Amoco Cadiz spill in Brittany in 1978. It extends well above the high-tide mark, where lichens are affected by sea spray spreading emulsified oil.
Mr Garcia said: "The crisis is not over. There is a terrible social and economic impact which will last between two and 10 years. The spill is 60% bigger than we thought, twice as big as the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. We know that 300,000 oiled seabirds died and more are turning up.
"But the concern now is centred on shallow water sediments, where shellfish live and fish breed. The pollutants are passing into the foodweb and ultimately, as we eat the shellfish, crabs and fish, into us."
He said the Spanish government had cleaned up beaches and "everything is shining" but oil still lay in sediments.
The long-term economic damage to the region is estimated to be 3 billion sterling pound, according to the Professional Economics Associations of Galicia.
WWF dismisses the beach cleaning as little more than a cosmetic exercise, and officials of the Spanish Oceanography Institute have backed its findings, saying that although oil has stopped appearing on beaches, the spill has had a big impact on larva and fish eggs, killing off a generation of fish and shellfish.
A spokesman for the Spanish health ministry said five laboratories had been checking the shellfish and fish caught or farmed in the area and affected by the Prestige disaster.
Bans on gathering fish and shellfish had almost all been lifted. "We have not detected any problems as a result," he said.
The authorities in Galicia, the area worst affected by the spill, has been lifting their bans on fishing and shellfish gathering over the months.
By September only a small stretch of coast near Finisterre still had a shellfish ban and the authorities lifted that in October.