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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 16:09 GMT
Tanker crisis hits Galician economy
Troubles are mounting in the Galicia region in north-west Spain after the oil tanker Prestige, which was carrying 70,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, sank off its coast.
On top of the looming environmental disaster, there is an economic crisis waiting to happen.
Dirty beaches are a distinct turn-off for tourists.
So although Galicia is far from a mass tourism destination, visitors from afar contribute greatly to the province's economy, and any fall in their numbers would hit the local people hard.
A spokeswoman for UK holiday company Magic of Spain said today: "There is very little tourism to northern Spain at this time of year.
"If this incident had happened at the beginning of the summer, it could have been devastating."
As yet it is the local fishing industry that has been hit the hardest.
"People here live off fishing," said one local resident, Antonio Gonzalez.
"Will we be able to eat at ease something that comes out of polluted waters?"
The problem is "not only the oil we can see washing up on the Spanish coast, but also the oil that settles on the ocean floor [which] is very harmful for fish, corals and other marine life," said Eco Matsers of the environmental campaigning group Greenpeace.
"If this oil does leak out into the sea, it will devastate marine life, and consequently have a tremendous impact on the people in the region," said Raul Garcia of the environmental campaigning group World Wide Fund for Nature.
The 17-kilometre-long oil slick from the stricken tanker lies within a popular fishing area 140 kilometres north-west of the Spanish and Portuguese coast.
"The tanker has split up in one of the most important areas of fisheries and birds and other wildlife. We are really worried about this," said Mr Garcia.
At least 1,000 fishermen have been prevented from going off-shore until the drama is over and will have to endure a period of no earnings.
It is a situation many of them can ill afford to sustain, let alone allow to get worse - hence the Spanish refusal to allow the stricken tanker to be towed to any of its ports.
Floods as well
Home to Vigo, Europe's largest fishing port, Galicia's fishing fleet makes up about half the Spanish fleet and employs about 25,000 fishermen.
Galicia is also the world's largest mussel growing region, so a further 13,000 - mostly women - work in the province's aquaculture industry.
Then there are the thousands of jobs onshore in fish processing and distribution, also at risk if the maritime businesses were to go down.
For the residents of Vigo - hit by damaging floods when the river Lagares broke its banks late last week - it is becoming increasingly clear that disasters often come in pairs.
This is one of the most isolated mainland regions in Spain and communication links with the rest of the country remain poor, so the local economy is heavily reliant on the sea.
Although unemployment is relatively low, it will be hard for those working in the fishing industry to find other work.
The local shipbuilding industry is a shadow of its former self and is supported by demand for fishing boats and trawlers.
But the relatively low jobless rate in the region is more a reflection of the way this rural economy is structured than of prosperity.
Small and disparate farms litter the landscape, and although they often offer only seasonal work they also keep many away from the dole queues.
But in several parts of the region, which is characterised by old age and low skills, social security payments are high when compared with meagre farm income.
Spain's fishing industry mirrors this reliance on outside assistance.
The country gobbles up about half of the EU's 1.1bn euros in annual aid to the fishing industry.
Much of the cash has been absorbed by industrialists building massive trawlers that often employ fishermen from low wage countries, off whose coastlines they commonly fish.
For many of Galicia's fishermen, the influx of cash from Brussels has done little to secure their future.
Galicia's local waters are suffering from a severe shortage of fish.
Speeding up change
That has brought growing pressure from Brussels for sharp cuts to the fishing fleet, including the removal of subsidies for modernising old boats and cash payouts for those prepared to scrap their vessels.
Galicians have long called for help to maintain their way of life.
But looking ahead, it seems likely EU cash will instead be directed towards early retirement for old fishermen and retraining for young ones.
An oil spill off the Galician coast may merely speed up the already rapid decline of the province's fisheries industry.
19 Nov 02 | Europe
10 Jun 02 | Business
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