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Wednesday, February 11, 1998 Published at 10:16 GMT


West Wales recovering from 'environmental disaster'

The area around Milford Haven has recovered remarkably well according to a new report

It is two years since the oil tanker, the Sea Empress ran aground in one of Britain's largest natural harbours. Experts are gathering in Cardiff to hear reports about the impact of the oil on the natural and social environment of West Wales. Tim Hirsch, Environment Correspondent for BBC News 24, reports:

What happened?
Damage could have been worse
Bird numbers down - but recovering
Cleaning-up methods questioned
Fishing industry getting back to normal
Mixed news for shore-life
Tourism still vital

What happened?

Shortly after eight o'clock on the evening of 15 February 1996, the oil tanker Sea Empress ran aground in the entrance to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, one of Britain's largest and busiest natural harbours.

In the days that followed, while the vessel was brought under control in a salvage operation beset with problems, some 72,000 tonnes of Forties light crude oil and 480 tonnes of heavy fuel oil spilled into the sea, polluting around 200km of coastline recognised internationally for its wildlife and beauty.

Two years after the accident, the question of blame is still the subject of criminal proceedings and therefore cannot be discussed openly. But the time has been reached when we can start to assess the damage caused by the spill, and to learn the lessons for dealing with similar pollution incidents in the future. The sad fact is that so long as oil is transported by sea, the risk of such events will always be present.

Damage could have been worse

Experts in the fields of bird-life, fisheries, pollution control and tourism are gathering at a conference in Cardiff this week to hear often highly technical reports about the impact of the oil on the natural and social environment of West Wales. A common thread runs through the many studies, more than eighty in all, which have been carried out. Putting it crudely, the area has recovered remarkably well, and things could have been a great deal worse. If the accident had happened a few weeks later, if the wind had been blowing from a different direction in the days following the spill, if the oil had been of a heavier type, then the wildlife and the economy of Pembrokeshire would be suffering to a much greater extent than they are.

For those of us who watched the oil coming ashore and defiling the picture-book harbour of Tenby, the colourful rock-pools of West Angle Bay and the mediaeval retreat of Caldey Island, it was difficult to report the Sea Empress story without endorsing the description put out by the many green groups which descended on West Wales back in February 1996: this was, unequivocally, an "environmental disaster".

Whether or not this was a fair description, it produced expectations of long-term effects, which, if they failed to materialise, might create a feeling amongst editors and commentators that they had been misled, and that the claims at the time were exaggerated. Two years after a "disaster" people might expect to hear of a devastated tourist industry, decimated bird populations and an impoverished fishing community. None of these things, thankfully, can by found in Pembrokeshire in 1998, according to the research being heard at this week's conference.

But there have been subtle effects on the ecology of the area which do not make dramatic copy or television pictures - it will be several more years before the full significance of these is known, and before it will be possible to diagnose a complete "recovery" from the oil pollution.

Thanks partly to luck and largely to the huge clean-up effort after the spill, the legacy of the Sea Empress is not obvious to anyone who visits the stunning coast of Pembrokeshire. The danger is that this will allow people to conclude that the environmental risk posed by oil spills have been overstated - according to the scientists gathering this week in Cardiff, that would be a travesty of the real lessons provided by one of the most intensively-studied pollution incidents of recent times.

Bird numbers down - but recovering

The most enduring image of any oil spill is probably the sight of blackened seabirds washed up dead or dying on polluted beaches. Often a television sequence of a single bird pecking vainly at its ruined feathers can have a greater impact than any facts and figures about the scale of the damage.

Those images were not hard to come by in the days after the spill, as thousands of oiled birds were recovered along the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire coastline. The most common casualty was the scoter duck, whose feeding technique of diving just below the surface of Carmarthen Bay led it straight into the middle of some of the worst slicks. Of a population of 15,000 scoters in the area, around 5,000 are estimated to have died. Recent studies indicate that the species is recovering, but the numbers are still down.

Distressing as the pictures of dead and dying seabirds were, those familiar with the area knew the real risk of an environmental catastrophe lay in the fate of the island bird reserves of Skomer and Skokholm, a short distance to the North of Milford Haven. A small amount of oil did come ashore here, but a change of wind direction took most of it into Carmarthen Bay and up the Bristol Channel.

The spill came just a short time before literally millions of seabirds were due to arrive on the islands to breed: if the accident had come a few weeks later, or if the oil had been taken out to sea where the birds were already gathering, the consequences are difficult to imagine. A report to this week's conference indicates that the internationally-important colonies of Manx shearwaters, puffins, gannets and lesser black-backed gulls do not appear to have been affected by the spill. Other species such as guillemots and razor-bills were killed in considerable numbers off the South Pembrokeshire coast, but these too appear to be recovering.

Cleaning-up methods questioned

One of the more controversial talking points at the conference is the handling of those oiled birds which were found alive. The RSPCA set up a bird-cleaning centre on an industrial estate outside Milford Haven, and with the help of volunteers began a major operation to rehabilitate and release as many birds as possible. It was painstaking and dirty work, with household detergent being used to clean the clogged-up feathers, and charcoal being forced down the throat of the birds to soak up toxic material. But a major study carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology and presented in Cardiff this week, questions the whole process of bird-cleaning. It looks at one of the species affected by the Sea Empress, the guillemot, and concludes that the average survival time for birds cleaned up after being oiled is just seven days, and that those recovered after release had moved just 8km from their starting point.

This does not amount to an attack on the efforts of groups such as the RSPCA which organise bird-cleaning operations: the study only covers one species and it could be argued that the cleaning is worthwhile even if only a minority of the birds survive. But it raises a debate over where the clean-up effort should be concentrated in any future oil spill. Some scientists whisper quietly that bird-cleaning has more to do with helping humans by making them feel they are doing something, rather than providing any significant benefit to nature _ but few would stick their heads above the parapet and say that publicly.

Fishing industry getting back to normal

One immediate impact of the Sea Empress oil spill was to turn the lives of local fisherman upside down as the Government quickly imposed a complete ban on the catching of fin-fish and shellfish in the affected area. The industry employs around 700 people directly in south-west Wales, and is worth some £20m a year, so the implications were potentially devastating. Although compensation was promised, the fishermen complained of delays and bureaucracy in making claims, and the months following the spill were traumatic for those whose livelihoods depended on the sea.

With the lifting of the bans, first on fin-fish and, in stages, on the different classes of shellfish, the industry is now getting back to normal. A report from the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee concludes that the prospects for fishing in the area are generally good. Stocks appear to be back to normal, although there are uncertainties about a few species - when there are shortages of a particular type of fish it is very difficult to know whether the oil was responsible.

There are even suggestions that the ban might have been helpful in allowing stocks of shellfish like crab and lobster to regenerate, and that the compensation money helped some fishermen to invest in new equipment. The fate of some of the younger shellfish, is not yet clear, however, and it will be several more seasons before the full effects of the spill are known.

As with birdlife, luck played a large part in limiting the impact of the accident on the fishing industry. Most migrating fish were still well out at sea when the oil hit - had it come a few weeks later the story could have been very different. The fact that the cargo was mainly light crude rather than heavier forms of oil also helped to limit the damage. The report also finds that despite fears that fish from West Wales would be tainted in the public's mind, consumer confidence appears to be high.

Mixed news for shore-life

It is a fact of life that if you report that five million limpets died as a result of the Sea Empress oil spill, it will produce less public reaction than the sight of a single puffin looking a bit unsteady on its feet. But some of the best-documented damage caused by the accident occurred to the less cuddly species lurking in the tidal pools along the Pembrokeshire coast.

A curious feature of the spill was that the patch of coastline which bore the brunt of the pollution in the early days following the grounding of the tanker, happens to be one of the most intensively-studied tidal habitats in the world. West Angle Bay, on the southern shore of Milford Haven, faces directly out to the mid-channel rock where the Empress foundered and has also been used for many years as a living laboratory by the nearby Orielton Field Studies centre. The centre had recorded details of what creatures lived in virtually every square metre of the rock pools.

As a result, the eminent biologist who runs the centre, Dr Robin Crump, was presented with a unique "before and after" study which is providing valuable information about the precise impact of oil on the life of the sea-shore. To the casual observer, the recovery of West Angle Bay seems complete, especially to those who recall the thick brown deposits of oil that coated the beach after the spill. But with the help of a guide like Dr Crump, subtle changes in the balance of nature can be observed: with the limpet population practically wiped out by the oil, the particular seaweed they used to feed on was allowed to thrive, changing the look of the rocks. It may seem a trivial change, but could have unforeseen consequences further up the food chain.

In scientific terms, probably the most significant effect of the Sea Empress spill has been felt by a tiny creature known as the brooding cushion-star, or Asterina phylactica to those in the know. This extremely rare species was first identified by Dr Crump himself at West Angle Bay and has only been found at seven other sites in Britain. Following the heavy pollution of the beach, the local population of this starfish fell from more than a hundred and fifty to just thirteen, pushing this particular colony to the edge of extinction.

In the past few weeks there has been a note of optimism in this particular story, as a cushion-star has been found to be brooding young. It appears that faced with this threat, the creature has found a way of fertilising itself. While this might save asterina phylactica in the short term it might become more vulnerable in the future because of the genetic effects of inter-breeding.

Down in the rock pools, then, the news seems to be mixed: nature is showing a remarkable resilience in the face of man-made interference, but it is still far from clear what the wider impact will be from small changes to local ecology.

Tourism still vital

With the closure of several defence establishments in Pembrokeshire and the scaling-down of the oil industry, tourism has become the life-blood of the area, and one of the greatest fears at the time was that the Sea Empress spill would deter visitors from travelling to this picturesque area. Local hoteliers were understandably infuriated when television pictures showing oiled beaches and birds continued to be broadcast after most of the coastline had been cleaned.

Once again, the timing of the accident proved to be extremely fortunate. Had the beaches been polluted a few weeks later, it would have been impossible to mount an effective cleaning operation in time for the first important holiday weekend at Easter _ worse still, it could have come later in the year and ruined the summer season. As it happened, the important beaches such as Tenby and Saundersfoot were looking impressively clean by the time of the Easter holiday, although there were still pockets of oil in the remote coves.

A report at this week's conference in Cardiff concludes that there probably was an impact on the number of visitors to Pembrokeshire in the 1996 season, but it is very difficult to measure the exact link with the Sea Empress and the images people saw on their television screens. It seems clear, however, that any effect was short-lived. There is even a suggestion that the news coverage in the weeks and months after the oil spill helped raise the profile of Pembrokeshire, and advertised its beautiful scenery to some who had not considered it before as a holiday destination.

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