FROM OUR ARCHIVE

2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the work of WTSWW in the west of its patch. This month in our regular archive item we look back to the disaster that hit us in 1996 and a major magazine piece detailing the impacts of the grounding of the Sea Empress.

Dyfed Wildlife Trust Bulletin No. 71, August 1996

A Nightmare Come True

Suddenly on the evening of Thursday 15 February the news reader was saying “we are just receiving reports that a large tanker has gone aground at the entrance to Milford Haven and is losing some of her cargo of oil”

Sea Empress beneath St Ann's Head by Mick Baines

Sea Empress beneath St Ann's Head by Mick Baines

The ill-fated Sea Empress had arrived. The very thing we had always feared, from the moment the first oil terminals opened in Milford Haven in 1960. A major oiling disaster was about to unfold.

Need it have occurred is a question everyone has asked, and continues to ask. What exactly did happen that night in February? Who took what decisions and why during those first few days? For it was these decisions, or was it lack of them, which resulted in over half her cargo of 136,000 tons of oil being spilled. Alas the answer to much concerning the Sea Empress is shrouded in mystery, while the Government steadfastly refuses to hold a Public Inquiry.

Instead the Marine Accident Investigation Branch is carrying out an investigation into what the Government still calls an incident, never once admitting it to be a disaster. This lacks any public confidence for alas the MAIB investigation is an internal inquiry to which submissions had to be made within just two short weeks of public announcement, initially not even made in the Pembrokeshire papers, at the end of February.

Despite much pressure, from letters by individuals and almost 100 organisations to Members of Parliament, to Ministers, including the Prime Minister, with major petitions organised by the Western Telegraph and by Nick Ainger the Member of Parliament for Pembroke, by numerous questions asked in both Houses of Parliament, including an Adjournment Debate on 24 April, the Government has steadfastly refused to establish a Public Inquiry.

Oil washing ashore in Angle Bay by Jack Donovan

Oil washing ashore in Angle Bay by Jack Donovan

With 72,000 tons of her cargo of Forties Crude Blend and 360 tons of her fuel oil spilled in this, the third largest oil spill in British waters and the twelfth in the world league, it is a miracle that the islands of Skokholm and Skomer escaped so lightly. For we were blessed, if that is the word, with mainly northerly quarter winds throughout most of the time that the disaster unfolded. Most of the oil that came ashore did so along the southern shores of Milford Haven, or was spent southwards, first affecting beaches on the Castlemartin Peninsula, then round into Carmarthen Bay. Some 190km of the coast- 12% of the coast of Wales- was affected from St Brides Bay to the mouth of the Burry Inlet.

This was only a small proportion of the Sea Empress cargo, perhaps as little as 1% according to at least one authority. Meanwhile vast quantities moved out into the Bristol Channel, some reaching Lundy and towards north Devon. There was, in the short daylight hours much aerial treatment, but how much was missed, and in subsequent easterly winds, carried far offshore? The 440 tons of dispersant sprayed was the largest amount ever used in British Waters.

You may be forgiven many months since the disaster struck, for imagining all the oil has gone. Far from it, miles of rocky coasts in south Pembrokeshire are affected to varying degrees, and in mid July cleaning up operations were still continuing. Marthinshaven, departure point for the islands and within the Skomer Marine Reserve, resembled during much of June a building site as four JCBs and accompanying lorries took the shingle away to Kilpaison on the south shore of Milford Haven to be washed and then returned. About 90 tons of oil is thought to have beached here.

Oil floating in the Wick with Kittiwakes already on the ledges by Simon Smith

Oil floating in the Wick with Kittiwakes already on the ledges by Simon Smith

What of Skokholm and Skomer? Oil reached both, while much more passed through Broad Sound and on out to sea. On Skokholm the inlets, particularly on the north coast of the island, were badly polluted and varying quantities of oil remained for a long period, sometimes ashore or floating close inshore. Bays and inlets on Skomer like North Haven, The Wick, Bull Hole and Pigstone Bay were all affected. Here Simon Smith and helpers, with magnificent assistance from Michael Alexander and other Countryside Council for Wales staff, were able to boom and collect most of the oil in the major bays.

As to over 7,000 oiled birds (see table), very few were seen at the islands, most that came ashore did so along the Carmarthen Bay coastline, with smaller numbers elsewhere, including nearly 400 in south-east Ireland. How many were lost at sea? When one considers the sea area involved- over 6,000 square miles- was it twice as many, five times as many, even ten times as many, as some authorities claim might be the case? We will never know.

 

Dead birds ashore

Rescued, fate unknown

Total birds ashore

Fulmar

1

1

2

Great Northern Diver

3

4

7

Black-throated Diver

1

1

2

Red-throated Diver

43

19

62

Great Crested Grebe

1

2

3

Red-necked Grebe

1

2

3

Gannet

11

0

11

Shag

14

6

20

Cormorant

24

0

24

Grey Heron

2

1

3

Mute Swan

4

21

25

Shelduck

2

0

2

Mallard

1

0

1

Scaup

1

1

2

Common Scoter

2976

1741

4717

Velvet Scoter

0

3

3

Eider

1

8

9

Read-breasted Merganser

0

1

1

Oystercatcher

28

7

35

Curlew

2

0

2

Turnstone

1

0

1

Black-headed Gull

15

0

15

Common Gull

2

0

2

Herring Gull

25

22

47

Kittiwake

2

5

7

Guillemot

1337

244

1581

Razorbill

344

14

358

Others/no ID

137

0

137

TOTAL

4979

2103

7082

Details provided by the Countryside Council for Wales 30 April 1996, last of the regular reports on casualties compiled by the CCW Stackpole Office.

John Hayes washing an oiled guillemot by Martin Cavaney

John Hayes washing an oiled guillemot by Martin Cavaney

What of our own island seabird populations? Detailed counts are carried out each year on Skokholm and on Skomer, on the latter much work being undertaken by Jim Poole, the Trust having a Joint Nature Conservation Committee research contract with additional support from the Countryside Council for Wales which enables these important long term studies to proceed. In addition we have this year supported from our Sea Empress funds a programme of detailed monitoring concerning Kittiwakes on Skomer. This is being carried out by Victoria Turner and supervised by Dr Keith Hamer of the University of Durham.

Colonies along the rest of the coast have been the subject of several surveys since the Seafarer pilot study of 1967, whilst at key points, like Elegug Stacks on the Castlemartin Peninsula, the seabirds are counted annually. To ensure that the maximum information possible on our seabirds was collected in the wake of the Sea Empress disaster the Trust submitted proposals for a comprehensive survey, not just of the populations, but also the productivity of several key species. As a result, and through a CCW contract, Mick Baines has co-ordinated this work along our coast aided by a number of volunteers, to whom we are especially grateful.

The counts were much delayed by the cold May and generally inclement weather, but the broad picture seems to be, and perhaps not unexpected, that colonies on the south and south-west coasts of Pembrokeshire show the greatest change with Guillemots the species most affected. On St Margaret’s Island their numbers have dropped from about 800 birds to 300, a decline of 60%. Further west, at Elegug Stacks the decline is 15%, at Skokholm 5% and at Skomer nearly a thousand birds- 9% of the population. By contrast Ramsey, and on the Ceredigion coast Guillemot numbers have risen, continuing the trend of recent years.

Razorbills have dropped by 14% on Skomer, from 3393 individuals in 1995 to 2934 this year, but elsewhere the trend seems to be upwards. The Cormorant numbers on St Margaret’s Island are low, but not excessively so and seem to be part of a national pattern. Shags have virtually disappeared from the Castlemartin Peninsula, though one hastens to say they numbered but some seven pairs. Kittiwakes have had a poor breeding season but the reasons for this are unclear. Puffins, which were not present during the height of the Sea Empress disaster, seem tobe having a successful year with birds at both Skokholm and Skomer bringing good quantities of sand-eels ashore.

Oiled Common Scoter by Jack Donovan

Oiled Common Scoter by Jack Donovan

The chief casualty of the Sea Empress disaster, as a glance at the table above will reveal, was the Common Scoter which winters in large numbers in Carmarthen Bay. The flocks, of international importance, frequenting the shallow waters have reached as high as 20,000, though during the disaster were probably about half this number. They feed close inshore by diving for mussels and other shellfish. Less than 200 pairs of Common Scoter breed in northern Britain, the birds which winter in the Bay probably originating from Scandinavia and northern Russia.

Among the first oiled birds seen within a short time of the initial stranding of the Sea Empress were gulls, some quite orange-brown on their heads and underparts, at locations mainly around the Milford Haven waterway. To assess the numbers of and degree of oiling of these, together with the waders, waterfowl and other birds which frequent the waterway, the rocky coasts and sandy beaches of South Pembrokeshire, many Trust members assisted in the counts. For the Haven and the coast to the south these were co-ordinated by the Stackpole office of the Countryside Council for Wales, while Brian Elliott, the Trust’s Marine Conservation Officer co-ordinated the north of the Haven. In addition to which he was much involved with the collection of those dead fish and marine invertebrates which were stranded on our beaches.

Oil being collected into pits ready for removal at Tenby by Jack Donovan

Oil being collected into pits ready for removal at Tenby by Jack Donovan

Grey Seals, particularly the late winter haul-outs at Skomer where up to 160 animals gather on beaches like Castle Bay, and in North Haven directly below the Warden’s house, were considered to be at risk in the event of heavy oiling at these locations. Fortunately there were no late winter pups on the beaches, but nevertheless quite a number of adult and immature seals did become oiled to varying degrees. The long term effect of such oiling is not known. We are especially grateful to the International Fund for Animal Welfare who swiftly provided funds which enabled us to check many of the Grey Seal breeding beaches, especially those inside caves, for signs of oil contamination which might have caused a problem later in the year at pupping time.

There was heavy mortality among the plants and animals on the shores affected by oil, especially West Angle, Freshwater West and Angle Bay. Some of these may have been casualties due to the oil, others perhaps to the dispersants used. While some species, particularly mobile ones, will re-colonise the decimated shores over the next few years as conditions return towards normal, others will take much longer, while in some instances local extinctions may have occurred.

One particular wildlife tragedy took place at West Angle, the cove where the fist of the Sea Empress oil came ashore. It was here that just a few years ago a previously unknown cushion starfish was discovered and named Asterina phylactica. This remarkable sedentary species as since been found at a further six localities in south Wales and in Devon, though as it is sedentary, recolonisation of West Angle is unlikely.

The decimation of these shored which proved not only superb wildlife habitats, but also outdoor classrooms without compare, cannot be overlooked.

Asterina phylactica (right) at West Angle by Robin Crump

Asterina phylactica (right) at West Angle by Robin Crump

Robin Crump, Warden of the Orielton Fieln Centre, writing in in the FSC Magazine earlier in the year described his horror as he looked at West Angle: “…an SSSI and a Grade 1 shore of national importance. It is probably the best teaching shore in the British Isles with the greatest diversity of intertidal habitats and the richest flora and fauna in a small space anywhere in Wales. Over the past 25 years I and my colleagues have brought tens of thousands of students here to carry out marine biology studies and marvel at the beauty of the rock pools and lichen encrusted rocks. A scene of utter devastation met my gaze with rocks and sand coated in a thick brown treacle of oil up to extreme high water.”

The tremendous efforts by Trust volunteers and members of the public, in respect to collection, transportation and subsequent care of oiled birds deserves the highest accolade. At West Williamston, Jean Hains with her dedicated helpers, many of them Trust members, was soon in action. John Hayes, was also in the forefront during the early days, and then as casualties quickly outstretched local resources the RSPCA opened their centre at Thornton.

Beach cleaning in June at Martins Haven by David Saunders

Beach cleaning in June at Martins Haven by David Saunders

The Government’s lamentable response to the calls for a Public Inquiry has thankfully not been mirrored when it comes to monitoring the effects of the disaster. A Sea Empress Environmental Evaluation Committee (SEEEC) was quickly set up under the chairmanship of Professor Ron Edwards and charged with reporting within 18 months. This has several Task Groups. On that known as the Shoreline and Terrestrial Task Group sits Jack Donovan, Chairman of the Islands Management Committee, while other local experts include Dr Robin Crump of Orielton Field Centre, Stephan Evans of the Countryside Council for Wales and Jane Hodges of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

We are most grateful to all those who have made donations to the Sea Empress disaster fund which will help towards the extra costs incurred as a result of the disaster, and finance our subsequent conservation and monitoring work. A t the same time these funds will assist in the ongoing campaigning work by the Dyfed Wildlife Trust in connection with marine conservation.