Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Port at Mercy of Oil Slick Prepares for Worst

Jose Manuel Trillanes wrapped his yellow oilskins tight around his body and pointed out to where gale force winds were churning up the Atlantic ocean beyond the small fishing port of O Grove.

"We know there's oil floating out there somewhere. If this storm brings it in, we might as well all emigrate," he said before stepping on board the blue-and-white painted Naveiro yesterday afternoon to do a second shift to gather mussels.

"Normally we only go out in the morning. But today we want to get as many mussels as we can in before any oil gets here," he said.

Jose Manuel, son and grandson of O Grove mussel gatherers, was not the only one talking of packing his bags if the sunken oil tanker Prestige, lying 130 miles to the west, spilled its deadly cargo into the shellfish-rich waters

Fear and panic continued to spread along the coast, despite the fact that the Prestige appeared to have taken most of its 70,000-tonne load of fuel to the sea bottom.

With the storm rolling in off the Atlantic, and mist banks obscuring views of the sea in many areas, rumours of numerous oil slicks in different directions provoked anger and dismay. Those slicks had been released before, or while, the tanker went down on Tuesday.

"There is a 30-mile-long slick coming up from Portuguese waters. When I saw the pictures on the television I felt absolute panic," said Francisco Iglesias, president of the town's 890-strong Fisherman's Guild.

Outside the guild's headquarters, the trees were being bent backwards by the force of the winds from the south-west, which were said to be pushing the oil inland at up to four miles an hour.

"It is going to come on to the coast somewhere. It could be here within hours. I am really scared about what might happen tonight. If it gets in here, then the whole town will have to close down," said Mr Iglesias.

Helicopters and spotter planes trying to track the oil spills buzzed overhead yesterday bringing in reports on the slicks which have already blackened a 100-mile stretch of coast to the north.

From his back pocket Mr Iglesias pulled a rumpled, hand-drawn map given to him by a French pilot who had overflown the area where the Prestige went down on Tuesday. "Look, the oil has broken into different slicks and they are all behaving differently," he said. "And there is a whole area of the sea that nobody has even looked at yet."

On the quayside, where fishermen were bringing the day's catch into the fish market from ranks of brightly painted boats, all the talk was about the Prestige and the Spanish government's bungling of the rescue operation.

"Our whole family lives off this boat and the sea," explained Jesus Pineiro, as he carted boxes of squid from the Diana VI. "My father, my brother and my cousin work with me on the boat. We all have families. If we can't fish, nobody will have anything to eat."

The same story was being repeated up and down the coast yesterday. Maria Dolores and Maria del Carmen Paz, two thick-armed sisters who go out every day at low tide with rakes and black rubber buckets to gather clams and winkles from the pristine beaches of the nearby island of Arousa, also spoke of emigrating.

"I have already lived in New Jersey," said Maria Dolores as she carted sacks full of clams into the market. "May be we will all have to go back. This is hard work. But we'll be out there tomorrow even if the storm comes in. This is how we live. Take it away and there is nothing left," she said.

Hundreds of small, wooden fishing vessels, some little more than rowing boats fitted with outboard engines, bobbed up and down in the island's port - a sign of the dependency of the 6,000 people who live here on the sea.

Francisco Vazquez, who owns half a dozen of the 250 square foot wooden rafts where thick knots of mussels are cultivated on strings dangling into the salt water, said the oil could ruin his livelihood without even entering the large sea loch where the rafts are situated.

"The small mussels which we use as seeds and from which we cultivate the rest are all on the rocks facing out to the open sea," he said.

"We should start going to get them in December, but if they get covered in oil, they will all die."

"If we're lucky," he added. "The wind will blow from the south and away from the shore. That way you'll get all the oil up north where you come from, in Britain or Ireland."