Prestige disaster devastating effect on seabirds
New report confirms Prestige disaster’s devastating effect on seabirds
Madrid, Spain – One year after the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker, BirdLife International’s Spanish Partner, SEO/BirdLife, has released a report confirming the devastating effect of the spill on seabirds, with up to almost a quarter of a million affected, the vast majority presumed dead. [1,2]
“On conservative estimates, we consider that the 23,000 birds collected in Spain, France and Portugal only comprise 10-20% of the birds affected by the Prestige disaster,” says Carlota Viada, Director of the Conservation Department at SEO/BirdLife. “Therefore we estimate that the number of birds affected by the fuel is anywhere between 115-230,000.” This is because a large proportion of the corpses are never washed ashore. The report, the first to examine the effects of up to 70,000 tonnes of spilt oil on local bird life in depth, is being presented this week across the two adversely-affected Spanish regions, Galicia and Cantabria. 
Examinations of ringed birds show that those collected came from as far away as North America and Finland. Between 16 November 2002, when the first oiled bird was recovered, up to 31 August 2003, when data collection stopped, 23,181 birds belonging to more than 90 different species were collected, of which 6,120 were alive and 17,061 dead. The most affected region in terms of polluted birds was Galicia, which had more than 50% of Spain’s registered oiled birds.
The most affected species was the Guillemot Uria aalge accounting for 51% of collected birds, more than 11,800 individuals, now making it one of Spain’s most threatened breeding birds. Of two colonies existing in 2002, one has since disappeared and no new chicks have been recorded at the other, where only 2-4 breeding pairs remain. SEO/BirdLife cites the pollution of the bird’s food sources by the spill as the reason for the decline. “The already tiny Spanish population of the Guillemot, differing in appearance to those elsewhere, was already minuscule before the Prestige disaster,” comments Laura García, co-author of the report. “However this was the final nail in the coffin for the bird in Spain which lost its food sources as a result of the oil spill”.
The second most affected species was the Razorbill Alca torda with 3,876 birds collected, or about 17%. The third most affected species was the Atlantic Puffin Fratercula artica with a total of 3,854 birds collected, also 17% of the total. SEO’s investigation shows that majority of the puffins came from north and west Scotland, and nearly all the Guillemots and Razorbills originated from colonies around the Irish Sea.
By 31 August this year, 604 birds from 34 different species had been reintroduced into their natural environment following collection, a successful reintroduction rate of only 10% to date, a respectable proportion, SEO/BirdLife says given the condition of the birds and their high sensitivity to handling. More than half of these were Common Guillemots, followed by gannets and Razorbills. Some 6,120 birds remain in recovery centres.
“The most catastrophic decision for birds which the Spanish Government made was to move the tanker Prestige away from the Galician coast when they knew that it was losing the fuel that it was transporting,” comments Alejandro Sánchez, Director of SEO/BirdLife. “It is incredible that, given the devastating effects of this disaster on wildlife, the Spanish Government has neither tightened its maritime security procedures nor has it further invested in vital equipment, such as tugboats and cleaning tankers.”
The Prestige ran aground on 13 November 2002, with 77,000 tonnes of fuel in its tanks. Six days later, the vessel sank into the Atlantic waters approximately 120 miles from A Coruña’s coast, reaching a depth of 3,500 metres. There were four resulting major oil spills, continually arriving at Galicia’s coast up to January, and subsequently affecting Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country and France. In total, 15 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) were oiled, of which seven were classed as heavily oiled, with more than 70% of their surface affected by oil.  Altogether some 1,400 volunteers assisted SEO/BirdLife in the clean-up operation which the organisation thanks for their time and efforts.
According to SEO, recent media reports of continued spills from the wreckage of the Prestige present no further danger to seabirds.