TORREY CANYON - 50 years later, sealife is decimated

Fifty years ago this month, one of the world’s first super tankers, the Torrey Canyon, ran aground on rocks between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles.

3 March 2017
By Jane Hanks

The 300m tanker was carrying 120,000 tons of crude oil and within days beaches and shores on both sides of the Channel were covered with an oil slick up to a foot thick.

With contamination from Cornwall to the Channel Islands and across to Normandy and Brittany, 25,000 birds were soon trapped in the sticky oil and many died. Underwater, the contamination was spreading and, soon, desperate bids to disperse the slick created an environmental catastrophe from which sealife is still suffering.

The disaster was a world first and no one quite knew how to react. In the UK they used detergent to try to break it up – but this was the worst thing they could have done.

This was not Fairy Liquid but a cocktail of untested chemicals more damaging than the oil itself.

With the oil continuing to pour out of the tanker with every wave, it was decided to bomb and sink it. Hit for two days with 161 bombs, 16 rockets, 1,500 tons of napalm and 44,500 litres of kerosene, it finally sank on March 30, 1967, 12 days after it hit the rocks.

The slick led to a new expression entering the French lexicon: a journalist at Brest’s Le Télégramme described it as a “marée noire” – a black tide.

This, sadly, has become common, with the Amoco Cadiz polluting 350km of Breton coast in 1978, the Tanio polluting 200km in 1980, and the Erika’s oil spill killing 350,000 birds in 1999.

Torrey Canyon’s marée noire came at the worst time, during nesting season, as migratory birds had just returned after winter. Many were wiped out, taking future generations with them.

At the time, there were thousands of puffins – today just 260 or so remain.

A guillemot was the first dead bird to be discovered – at Port-Blanc, Côtes-d’Armor – and within days a bid was mounted to protect sealife.

Centres for birds were set up in Perros-Guirec and at Brest, Finistère. About 4,500 birds died in Brittany but 651 birds of 11 different species were saved at Perros-Guirec.

Michel Glémarec was a 29-year-old oceanographer specialising in biology at Brest University and said: “This was our first contact with oil and we didn’t know what to do.

“Hundreds answered the call to save our beaches and wildlife. There was an attempt to set fire to the slick, but it was mixed with too much water.

“The university had a laboratory at Roscoff and another scientist and I left our families for a month to go. We did everything we could to try to mop up the oil from the sea.

“We tried making huge sausages out of hay and we worked really hard but we didn’t really succeed in making much progress. Luckily the slick was less concentrated than the oil which reached the UK, so not quite so much damage was done to marine life.”

He says a long-term study carried out by scientists in Cornwall revealed the most important lesson: that the detergents caused more pollution than the oil itself.

“The British are tenacious and their work over several years showed the extent of the damage.

But, he added: “First the algae grew back on the rocks. Then the small creatures which feed on the seaweed came back and finally the fish. 

“It took 17 years for the eco-system to be re-established.”

The UK study was by the Marine Biological Association. It said almost as much detergent as the leaked oil had been sprayed. It looked as if it had done a good job but “contamination by detergents was more dangerous than the toxicity of the oil”.

Plankton were destroyed, as were oysters, shrimps, prawns and limpets, as well as many young fish.

The MBA looked at how France had reacted and said scientists used powdered craie de Champagne chalk, which sank the oil more successfully and was much cheaper and less harmful to sealife than detergents. However, they concluded: “We are progressively making a slum of nature.”

Ships scooped up parts of the slick to be stocked in hastily organised sites along the coast. But it was not until 2011 that the last of these was cleared.

It was on Ile d’Er off Plougrescant, Côtes d’Armor, where the army had dug three trenches which were filled with oil and left open to the elements. They stayed like that for 44 years.

Eventually one of France’s oldest environmental associations, Robin des Bois, campaigned to get it cleared.

Spokesman Jacky Bonnemains said: “This was one of our most successful missions. The State paid for a helicopter to fly the oil, shovelled into plastic bags, to the mainland and it was then transported by lorry to be incinerated.

“We also found other stockage sites and though most had been cleared there were still 62 with traces of pollution. We have listed them so that mairies know where they are.

“This is important so no-one will ever build on that land. Also it means if oil is found in water nearby it can be traced back to those sites and the problem regulated.

“Now any oil from a similar disaster will be taken to specified zones and destroyed immediately. But at the time, there was no system in place.”

Similarly, in Guernsey, oil scooped up from the sea was dumped in a quarry – soon named Torrey Canyon quarry. It was a graveyard for any bird that made the fatal mistake of landing on the seemingly-solid surface.

Guernsey States official Jim Ander­son told Connexion: “We started to clear the oil in 2009 and set up a bio- remediation system using bacteria to eat any remaining oil. Since about 2011 it has been pretty much clear.

“But I would not swim in it. Oil still bubbles up from the sediment plus the Nazis dumped explosives here in the war and they are dangerous.”

No-one was prepared for the Torrey Canyon but since the disaster there have been many changes to reduce the risk of oil spills and to react more effectively and efficiently.

Mr Bonnemains said: “There are now policed obligatory navigation routes for ships with dangerous cargo, although ships try to deviate from this ‘autoroute’ nearly every day.

“There are more tugs around the coast to help ships in distress and to avoid accidents. These are very costly as they are mostly on stand-by but when they do intervene are very effective. But there are still not enough.

“Since the Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz and Erika, tanker design has improved and they must now have a double skinned hull to prevent fuel tanks being holed. Court cases and fines have also persuaded some owners to look after their fleets better.”

After Amoco Cadiz, the Polmar (pollution maritime) national plan was developed for such accidents.

It has teams trained and ready, with centres at Dunkirk, Le Havre, Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Sète, Marseille and Ajaccio stocked with floating booms, pumps and beach cleaning equipment.

However, Mr Bonnemains says there is always the fear of another accident.

“From November to March, in the season of violent storms, we are always fearful. We know better how to deal with the situation but there is always a risk. Potential danger doesn’t only come from oil tankers now.

“Vast container ships can carry between 10,000 and 15,000 tonnes of fuel just to propel them – plus there is also a potential risk from the other dangerous substances they carry.”

In Brest, the Mor Glaz (Breton for Blue Sea) association bids to prevent the sea from becoming a dustbin for old ships and material lost overboard.

President Jean-Paul Hellequin said: “Many things have improved since the Torrey Canyon and the fleets from the UK, France, Norway and Germany are in excellent condition. But a third of the world’s boats are from poorer countries and are in an extremely poor condition.

“There is always the danger of an accident. There is a huge amount of traffic – 180 ships pass the Brittany headlands each day.” 

Furthermore, crews were often not there by choice but because they were desperate for work and were often treated extremely badly. “Too many ship owners are unscrupulous and only there to make money. An untrained and unhappy crew is not good for safety at sea.”

There are other problems: “We now have what we call invisible pollution, when a container carrying chemicals can finish up in the sea and create unseen damage.

“Just off the Brittany coast are two ships which sank while being towed to be dismantled in Turkey. They still had quantities of fuel in them, which is illegal for towed boats. It is an example of how our seas can so easily be polluted. The environment minister is following it up.

“The Torrey Canyon first alerted us to the dangers but there are still many things that need addressing.”

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