PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 131, Winter 2003: Human Disturbance

... a wake-up call for the world to take preventative action


PRBO Sends Two Biologists to the Coast of Spain

Catastrophic Oil Spill

Diana Humple

Human Disturbance
Executive Director's Column
Vulnerable Coastal Habitats
Invasive Plants
Responsible Science
Birding Ethics
Focus on Feeders
Planned Giving to PRBO
Spain Oil Spill

On November 13, 2002, the tanker Prestige, containing twice the quantity of oil as Exxon Valdez, began leaking off the coast of Spain. In a week the ship split in two and sank to the ocean floor, where it continues to leak its contents. The catastrophic scale of this spill was likely due to the decision to tow the cracked and vulnerable ship into rough seas instead of granting it safe harbor, where the oil could have been contained. Hundreds of kilometers of coastline were oiled, some by a 35 x 65 km (20 x 40 mile) slick. The fishing industry, crucial to the Galician economy (the coastal state hit hardest), has been shut down and its future jeopardized.

Because of PRBO's expertise in oil spill response, we offered assistance and were immediately asked to participate. Christine Abraham and I joined a British biologist and a team from the University of La Coruña (Spain) in species identification, documentation, and dissections of dead oiled birds; without such efforts, effects of spills on seabird populations are unknown. In many cases, documentation is also crucial to holding the responsible parties legally accountable and to ultimately make it in their interest to practice safer shipping methods.

PRBO biologist Christine Abraham examines an oiled Gannet in La Coruña, Spain.

To date, over 13,000 dead birds have been collected, and the true mortality likely is closer to 130,000 birds. Primary bird species affected include Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, Shag, Northern Gannet, Common Murre, and Yellow-legged Gull. While long-term effects are unknown, the consequences may be severe, especially for species (e.g., the puffin) where mostly adults, already of breeding age, were affected.

The lack of coordinated response by the Spanish government highlights the dire need for established oil spill contingency plans-state, national, and continent-wide in scale-to be developed before such events occur. This event will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for the world to take further preventative actions against the disastrous effects of oil spills.

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