The Sea Empress: twenty years on

Dyfed Wildlife Trust Magazine cover, August 1996

Dyfed Wildlife Trust Magazine cover, August 1996

Many of our readers and members will remember the fateful date of 15 February 1996. The Sea Empress, a tanker carrying over 70,000 tons of crude oil was making her way to the refinery near Pembroke, when she grounded in the Milford Haven waterway, on rocks near St Ann’s Head. The grounding site was close to our internationally important nature reserves of Skomer and Skokholm. The disaster that rapidly unfolded came to be Britain’s third largest oil spillage.

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

According to a report from Swansea University, over 6,900 birds were found, recovered dead or rescued. More than 250 birds were recorded as stranded on the Irish coast. The common scoter made up the largest proportion of casualties, with at least 4,700 recovered. In excess of 1,100 guillemots were also recovered, and other species included cormorant, red-throated diver and razorbill. More than 25 species were affected in total.

The Trust (then the Dyfed Wildlife Trust in the west) was heavily involved in the aftermath and clean up effort, which made headline news for weeks. David Saunders, Director of the Trust at the time of the disaster, recalls meeting HRH the Prince of Wales at West Angle to discuss the nature conservation impacts, being filmed for Panorama, and even meeting Tony Blair, who was then leader of the opposition.

Steve Sutcliffe, who had been warden on Skomer till not long before the spill and who lives close to the site of the grounding, remembers:

“In the next few days there were people all over the beaches and cleaning centres set up for oiled birds, although many of them were past it. The oil headed for Carmarthen Bay with north westerly winds prevailing and it was all hands on deck around Tenby and Saundersfoot where the tourist season was due to start.  The cleaning up operation here was a mega removal effort. On Caldey, the oil came ashore all around the island and can still be seen on the rocky shores today, and there are still residues in the sand. St Margarets Island’s auk populations suffered badly – almost 60% of the cliff nesting breeding birds disappeared. The large cormorant colony was unaffected as the breeding birds had not returned yet and somehow they missed it all. Most gulls seemed able to keep out of the oil.”

Experiments carried out after the event suggested that most dead birds probably went across the Irish Sea to Ireland, and it seems likely that many dead oiled auks might have also drifted away from the Pembrokeshire shores on the strong offshore currents. It is very possible that the numbers of dead birds counted was probably a big underestimate.

Oil washing ashore in Angle Bay by Jack Donovan

Oil washing ashore in Angle Bay by Jack Donovan

Significant impacts were observed on the wider marine ecology of the area. John Archer-Thomson is a local ecologist who has been studying the area for many years. Beginning work at the Dale Fort Field Centre in 1982; he is a member of the Trust’s Islands Conservation Advisory Committee to this day. Though his work at the Centre he had been studying the population of limpets on a rocky shore called Frenchman’s Steps and so had over ten years of data by the time the Sea Empress grounded. His valuable monitoring data both before and after the event showed that the oil reduced the population by approximately 50%.

It was fortunate that both Skomer and Skokholm were remarkably unaffected – a gift of the prevailing weather conditions which in contrast sealed the fate of locations like Tenby. Nonetheless many of the long term studies on Skomer did detect impacts at a population level, even though relatively few oiled birds were seen immediately around the island. Professor Tim Birkhead’s detailed work on Skomer subsequently showed an effect on populations and breeding success of guillemots in the immediate aftermath of the incident, despite being masked to some extent by the continuing significant general population increases. The St Margaret’s Island population recovered by 2005 and went on to substantially exceed the pre 1996 figures – but it took nine years to do that.

So twenty years on, what has changed? The Milford Haven waterway remains a busy and important industrial centre, and if you stand on Skomer and Skokholm and watch the lights of the tankers and refinery at night it throws the vulnerability of the islands to a catastrophic event into undeniably sharp relief. Safety procedures and environmental controls have improved, but the potential will always be there. And the Sea Empress herself? She was repaired and put back to work after the 1996 disaster, changing hands (and name) several times, before being decommissioned in 2012.

One of the most important lessons remains incredibly pertinent in these days of austerity. We are only able to look back and talk about the impacts of the disaster because of the long terms studies undertaken by the Trust, and by individuals such as John Archer-Thomson and Professor Tim Birkhead. Their long term investment in monitoring meant that high quality data were available for the years before the event, providing the baseline against which the impact was measured. Without the maintenance of these long term studies we cannot decipher the evidence to establish the effect of our decisions, policies- and yes, disasters. Funding has already been cut to many biological monitoring programmes, and there are serious concerns about the security of those that remain.

Sea Empress beneath St Ann's Head by Mick Baines

Sea Empress beneath St Ann's Head by Mick Baines

It seems fitting, twenty years on, to end with a memory from David Saunders, who watched from St Ann’s Head as the Sea Empress was towed away from the grounding site on 27 March 1996.

“As soon as I left the car near the old light I could smell oil, and see an enormous oil film spread back from the stern of the Sea Empress, narrow at first, just like the wake of a ship, but broadening out the further east one looked. It extended from the ship eastwards into Milford Haven at least as far as West Block-house, and from the Mid Channel Light north to under St Ann’s itself. It looked to be an oil film, though here and there one could see (through binoculars) small patches of darker material. A Gannet flew low over the oil film heading north… …at one stage, a female Grey Seal appeared several times in the midst of the film south-east of St Ann’s, it seemed to be watching the inward passage of anti-pollution craft and tugs.”