The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. – Albert Einstein

On 19th November 2002, thirty miles off the Costa da Morte, Spain, the single-hulled supertanker Prestige broke in half and sank, distributing 60,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil all along the Atlantic coastlines of Spain, Portugal and France.

Perhaps I ought to apologise for harping back to some disaster that happened over three years ago; one that perhaps we’d all be better off forgetting. Now that we can surf again, the fishermen can fish and everybody can get on with their lives, why dwell on it?

Well, the answer is, if I could have written this article three years ago, when the Prestige was hot news, I would have. But it was just too early. You see, the overall effects of large oil spills such as the Prestige take years, if not decades, to develop. It is only by studying them for many years afterwards that we can begin to understand their effects.

The Prestige oil spill was an environmental catastrophe of the highest order. Its consequences were far-reaching and profound, affecting every single member of the coastal community; human and non-human. The fishermen couldn’t fish for months; the ‘percebeiros’ (those intrepid and uniquely Galician collectors of shellfish) couldn’t work, and we, the surfers, couldn’t even go in the water. In fact, just to get near it one would sometimes to cross a stinking black mass of crude oil. I remember paddling out at a beach almost a thousand kilometres from where the Prestige went down, more than a year after it happened, and coming out covered in brown-black stains. The list of consequences, immediate or delayed, goes on.

Now, just over three years later, it seems the whole episode has been almost forgotten – as if there had been a huge fuss for nothing. Presumably, the remaining 37,000 tonnes of fuel still leaking out of the ship, 4,000 metres down, has miraculously disappeared. It must have because Repsol YPF, the state-owned oil company ‘contracted’ by the Spanish government to suck the oil out with robots and giant pipelines, didn’t need to do it. Presumably, all the remaining oil under the rocks along the Galician shoreline has also miraculously disappeared. In fact, according to official government reports, the coastline of Galicia has made a “complete recovery”.

But that’s governments for you. Of course Galicia’s coastline hasn’t got over the Prestige disaster. Even though the initial, direct physical impacts are now almost imperceptible, the indirect, long-lasting and extensive impacts haven’t ceased. In fact, it’s absurd to say that the entire coastal system has made a ‘complete recovery’ in such a short space of time.

Scientists are intensively studying the long-term effects of the Prestige and other oil spills. Two important coastal biology studies have recently appeared in the scientific literature, one about the Prestige – the first of its kind so far – the second about the Exxon Valdez, now seventeen years in the past and from which a considerable amount of data is now available. Both these catastrophes happened in coastal areas of outstanding natural beauty, high productivity and high biodiversity. It is ironic that most large oil spills seem to happen on some of the most pristine coastlines in the world. Sadly, it follows that these areas automatically become the best ‘natural laboratories’ for studying the long-term impacts of such events.


Just by looking at the state of the coastline after the Prestige spill, any fool could tell it would take a miracle for the effects to go away immediately, despite the heavily-censored Spanish news reports. After a year, people were just beginning to get the first ideas of the overall impact on the ecosystem. Then it was really too early to tell, but now, just over three years later, some of the first proper results have emerged concerning the Prestige and its effects on the ecosystem.

Biologists Rosario de la Huz and colleagues from the University of Vigo have just published an extensive study into the biological impacts of the spill on the coastline of Galicia. Their work, covering the entire Galician coast, focused on 18 sandy beaches. They compared data on the diversity and abundance of six categories of small animals from September 1996 (before the spill) until May 2003 (after the spill). The species, termed macrofauna, were grouped into six taxonomic categories, including marine and semi-terrestrial crustaceans and insects. These are considered good examples of species that can be greatly affected by a coastal contamination event, in addition to occupying a relatively low level in the food pyramid. During their post-spill survey in May 2003, the first thing the Huz team did was to write down their initial observations. There was, they noted, a considerable amount of oil in the sediment on all the beaches studied (no surprises there). In fact, on 10 of the 18 beaches the sand was not even visible beneath a thick carpet of black oil. The next thing they did was to count the number of different species present, and compared this with data already available from September 1996. A highly significant decrease in the number of species (effectively, the biodiversity) was observed on all but one of the beaches, in some cases up to two thirds of the species having disappeared.

They then counted, for each taxonomic group, the total population of individual animals per square metre of beach area. This was also found to have decreased considerably.

Perhaps the most surprising result was that, in addition to the oil itself directly affecting the biology, the actual cleaning of the beaches (a secondary consequence of the oil spill) did just as much damage, if not more, as the Prestige. This wasn’t new; in fact it had already been noted from previous spills such as the Exxon Valdez. The main reason for the damage is that vigorous cleaning of the beach removes every last trace of vegetable matter. Algal wrack (a type of seaweed) for example, is used by the macrofauna as food and shelter, particularly on the dry beach and right on the water’s edge. If the macrofauna cannot live, then, obviously, neither can the larger creatures that depend on the macrofauna for food. And if they can’t live, neither can the bigger ones who depend on them for food. And so on up the food pyramid.

After rigorous statistical testing, Huz and colleagues considered that their conclusions (basically, that the ecosystem has seriously been affected by both the oil itself and the cleaning of the beaches) were trustworthy, despite the difficulty in distinguishing changes due to the oil spill from those due to natural variability. They were worried that, since one set of measurements was taken in the spring (May 2003) and the other in the autumn (September 1996), the natural seasonal variation between these two times of year might have influenced the results. Therefore, they performed a special check to estimate this natural variation, which was then subtracted from the total effects of the spill. The results still indicated a major effect on the ecosystem, so their conclusions were deemed reliable.



On 24th March 1989, the Exxon Valdez went aground on Bligh Reef, Prince William Sound, Alaska. As a result, 42,000 tonnes of crude oil seriously contaminated at least 2,000km of pristine Alaskan coastline. The case of the Exxon Valdez is now the most highly studied example of long-term effects from large oil spills. The extensive results published over the last 17 years on the biological effects of the Exxon Valdez can be useful for seeing what lies in store for the Galician coastline. By the way, if you think this is irrelevant because there are no surfing waves in Prince William Sound, think again. The oil reached the Kodiak Archipelago, where there are good waves and a thriving surf community.

Charles Peterson and colleagues from the University of North Carolina have published a comprehensive review of all the work done in the last 17 years on the ecotoxicological effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After reviewing the vast literature now available, Peterson points out that the seriousness of the event was grossly underestimated at the time. The indirect consequences (termed ‘cascade’ effects) are only now becoming apparent, all these years later. He stresses that the current procedures for assessing how the ecosystem will respond to traumatic contamination events, including oil-tanker accidents, are still inadequate. This is mainly because these procedures do not account for some of the indirect, delayed impacts. Peterson concludes with a list of ‘what we thought then’ and ‘what we know now’ about various aspects of the spill. These are summarised as follows:

• It was thought that most of the oil on most shorelines would be degraded rapidly. Now we know that it degrades at varying rates, with oil stuck under the surface being protected from the usual effects of physical disturbance, photolysis (degradation by sunlight) and oxygenation (degradation by exposure to the air). Therefore, the oil may persist for many years. A lot of oil having been protected from the elements in this way can still be found on rocky beaches several years after a spill.

• We already knew that sea birds and marine mammals died of short-term, acute exposure, mostly due to (a) corrosion of the skin and protective coatings leading to hypothermia, and (b) ingestion of the fuel leading to direct damage to internal organs. Scientists also had a vague idea that the poison would work its way up the food pyramid, eventually reaching the top-level predators, including us. However, that was still a little naïve. It is now known that the health of the animals themselves, not just whether they live or die, can affect the ‘health’ of the entire ecosystem. For example, in a contaminated environment, the breeding and raising of young is seriously hindered, particularly in socially organised animals. This then affects the whole species, which, in turn, affects other species above and below it in the food pyramid.

• It was thought the impacts on the coastline, including the ecosystem, were exclusively associated with the presence of the oil itself, directly poisoning or physically encumbering most forms of life. Now we know that the frantic cleaning of the beaches after an oil spill can cause just as much, if not more damage. Moreover, repeated clean-up operations tend to set back any ecosystem recovery already under way. This is a surprising result and quite difficult to believe. It means that having clean, sandy beaches for the tourists to lie on, or for us surfers to walk across, after a spill, might come at the price of causing even more damage to the ecosystem. Would it be better to just leave the oil there?

The importance of the long-term health of the affected species is worth thinking about. The study pointed out that most some of the worst affected were those socially organised species such as dolphins and sea otters. It turns out that their health, or correct functioning, is important to the whole ecosystem and therefore (presumably) important to us and other top-level occupants. A major coastal contamination event like the Prestige would be to dolphins or sea otters as horrific as, say, Chernobyl or Bhopal was to the unfortunate people affected by those disasters. Both were events where people didn’t just die, but where entire societies – even more that just one generation – still have to live with cancers and other diseases.

All in all, the study of Dr. Peterson and colleagues shows that these kinds of catastrophes never turn out to be simpler to deal with than we thought they would be. They always turn out to be more complicated. This phenomenon is partly due to our own wishful thinking, and partly due to the sad fact that the very people responsible for these disasters are those controlling the propaganda.


Studies into the Exxon Valdez and the Prestige oil spills are beginning to show that, by abusing the environment in this way, we are slowly but relentlessly weakening the biodiversity of the planet. The term ‘ecocide’ is now commonly being used to describe our gradual extermination of the planet’s species and, as a result, the eventual depletion of our own resource base. Many modern scientists and philosophers, including the brilliant Jared Diamond (author of the award-winning Guns, Germs and Steel), suggest that ecocide has now become a more realistic threat to human society than, say, nuclear war.

We humans have spent thousands of years, generation after generation, adapting to the environment. The reason we are able to adapt to it is because it changes slower than we do. However, now that we have the technology to catastrophically change our environment over an extremely short length of time, we are actually putting the planet in extreme peril. Wisdom with hindsight is easy, but learning from our mistakes is essential if we are to survive.

Tony Butt completed a PhD in Physical Oceanography at the Centre for Marine Studies, University of Plymouth, England. He now lives and continues his research in Northern Spain.