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Ten years after the Braer oil disaster, is our coastline safer?

YES LORD Donaldson led the inquiry into the Braer disaster, when 85,000 tonnes of oil gushed into the sea from a tanker off Shetland 10 years ago today. He says his report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas, which recommends Marine Environmental High Risk Areas (MEHRAs), will protect the UK against another Braer.

IN the short term, Shetland suffered from the Braer disaster.

Hoteliers were very badly affected after tourists stopped visiting and our fishermen were hit because the Norwegians were saying: "Don't eat Scottish fish."

But in the long-term, we can recover. Disasters like this can turn out to be less terrible as first forecast. Prince William Sound in Canada, the scene of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, has shown that.

There are higher fish numbers than ever before because certain bugs feed on the oil and have multiplied. In turn they are food in the next layer of the food chain.

I think organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund take a too-bleak approach.

After Braer, measures have been put in place to protect our coast. How we would have handled the Prestige, which has leaked thousands of tonnes of oil off Spain, would be very different from the Spanish.

Their answer was wrong. The advice from salvage experts was that the tanker was starting to break up and should be towed to a sheltered port or bay to have the oil pumped off. Instead, the Spanish ministers ordered that it be towed out to sea. It was a political decision.

We have what is called SOSREP - the Secretary of State's Representative for maritime salvage. The appointment is held by Robin Middleton and, working on the experts' best advice, he would decide what should be done. If he wanted a tanker in difficulty taken to a sheltered bay, that would have happened.

The Safer Ships document set out a blueprint to improve safety.

Today, there are tugs on stand-by to guide tankers through our waters and they have been very active in the Minch and at Dover. The Dover tug is sufficiently valuable for the French to put up funding for half the cost. If you can get the French to put any money at all, then it must be very valuable.

The Department of Transport is at a very advanced stage in working out MEHRAs to protect the most sensitive areas. Granted it has been a slow process but this is because of difficulties deciding on the priority areas.

The Minch, on the north-west of Scotland, is undoubtedly a priority.

If all the submissions made by the World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth were taken into account, you might as well forget the whole thing. There would be a thick no-go line around the entire coast.

You can't ban vessels completely. There has to be some regard for commerce.

But a ship's master will want to avoid MEHRAs. It would be very expensive for him and his company if the vessel were wrecked there. They would face massive legal and clean up costs.

I'm far from complacent but I feel extremely fortunate that so many of the recommendations have been implemented.

NO THE World Wildlife Fund is scathing of government's response to the Braer.Richard Dixon, WWF's head of policy in Scotland, says that Shetland got off relatively lightly 10 years ago, but warns that lessons need to be learned if we are to protect our coastline from another disaster.

TEN years on from the Braer spill and we are still failing to protect our marine environment from toxic effects of oil.

Both Conservative and Labour governments have largely ignored recommendations made in the Lord Donaldson Inquiry.

Last year alone there were almost 700 accidental or deliberate marine pollution discharges around the UK.

In 1993 the Shetland Islands got off lightly from the Braer disaster, with most of the oil being swept out to sea. But we can't rely on fate next time.

Although less than one per cent of the Braer's load was washed ashore, the concentration in the sea was much higher.

Inshore fisheries and salmon farms were badly affected with oil concentrations up to 20,000 times higher than normal.

Fishing in the area was suspended for several weeks. Shellfish, finfish, marine mammals and various bird species were all affected by the spill.

The Shetlands are known for their large colonies of birds and the variety of rare species attracted there during migration.

It is estimated that up to 32,000 birds could have perished from the Braer oil spill.

It is still too early to know the exact effects of the oil spill from the Prestige off the Spanish coast but the main concern revolves around the effects of toxic oil compounds such as Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Twenty-five dolphins and minke whales, one loggerhead turtle, three hawksbill turtles and a river otter have already been found dead.

Although experts are not 100 per cent sure that these animals died because of the oil spill, they are linking their deaths to the ecological disaster. More than 8800 affected birds have been found so far in Galicia, Northern Spain and Northern Portugal but experts believe that the final tally could be as high as 200,000.

So far it is estimated that 12,000 of the original 77,000 tonnes have leaked from the Prestige. An off- limits fishing area of over 180 miles has been created around the wreck and up to 90,000 livelihoods have been affected.

Tankers passing through the Minch off the west coast of Scotland are within a mile of one of the most pristine areas of natural beauty in Western Europe.

If a spill was to affect areas such as this it would have incalculable consequences for local wildlife as well as the livelihoods of remote communities.

Despite this and the experience of the Braer, governments have delayed taking the simple step of protecting these areas by designating them as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs).

Not doing so is tempting a repeat performance of the Braer or the Prestige in our inshore waters.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 5, 2003
Words:1015
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