Maritime Officer Attends Oil Disaster Conference

Steve Watt, Scilly's Maritime Officer

Our islands’ Maritime Officer has been learning about the steps involved in dealing with an oil or chemical spill in the waters around Scilly.

Steve Watt attended the multiagency conference in London last week. He was nominated to represent the 10 Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, or IFCAs, which were set up recently in the UK.

Steve says the conference looked into all aspects of marine pollution, not just oil and he said it’s important to plan ahead for such a disaster, and to know what to do.

Key facts, such as what’s been spilt, where it’s heading and what marine life could be in the area, will help determine the type of response that’s launched.

He said it isn’t always obvious, such as making sure you have a good record of seasonal animal behaviours, such as spawning and migrations, as this could change how serious the situation is.

But Steve said any spillage could have devastating long-term effects on both the environment and economy of the islands, especially with our reliance on the tourist industry.

He said our bird populations are the most vulnerable, because they sit on the surface of the water and preen, which means they ingest the oil. However, seals do not groom, so will be less affected by heavy crude oil, but they could inhale fumes from lighter oils and become sick.

And while adult fish will tend to swim away from a spillage, eggs and juvenile fish are likely to be poisoned.

There are also dangers in using detergents to disperse the oil, which can actually be toxic themselves.

Steve says the islands have seen some serious spillages in the past, notably the Torrey Canyon in 1967, which spilled 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the sea at the Seven Stones reef. Steve said he was the only person at the conference to have first-hand experience of that event.

There was also a lesser-known disaster in 1907 when the TW Lawson, the biggest commercial sailing vessel ever built, was wrecked off Annet, spilling 250,000 gallons of paraffin oil. It’s thought to be the first major oil-tanker disaster in history.

And within the last 20 years, there was some fuel oil lost from the Cita wreck.

Steve said on both occasions, the islands were lucky. In the case of the Torrey Canyon, the oil was blown towards the Cornish coast and with the Lawson, the cargo of paraffin oil was lighter than crude oil and eventually evaporated.

Steve said you can never fully prepare for a disaster because the authorities will always be reluctant to put in resources for something that might never occur. But he said it’s important to at least try to be ready should the worst happen.