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Tanker aftermath wipes out puffins

The first victims of the Torrey Canyon disaster were the birds, and their populations have never recovered.

On the Brittany coast it could not have come at a worse time.

Sea birds had returned from their winter quarters to nest – and figures from the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux Réserve Naturelle des Sept-Iles, Côtes d’Armor, illustrate what that means.
In 1967, before the disaster, there were 2,500 pairs of puffins; afterwards there were 400.
For razorbills the before figure is 450; after, 50.
For guillemots there were 270 before and 50 after.

It took 10 years for puffin figures to begin to grow again and there were 800 couples. But then came Amoco Cadiz and they slumped to 330 pairs.
In 1980, there was another marée noire when the Tamio sank 200km off Finistère – they dwindled to 130 couples.
Today that figure is the same: still 130 puffin pairs, 260 birds.
There are only 45 razorbill pairs and 39 guillemot pairs.

Reserve director Gilles Bentz says there will soon be no more birds from the auk family, which includes guillemots and puffins, in France:
“The Torrey Canyon came when bird populations were already declining.
“In 1950, we had 7,000 puffin pairs on Les Sept-Iles which had fallen to 2,500 by 1967, largely due to over-fishing, in particular the sardine industry.
“The Torrey Canyon was a savage blow to an already fragile population. Since then there have been other oil disasters.
“On top of this, from 1984-2000 we would rescue 300 birds a year covered in oil due to ships dumping fuel at sea.
“Now, ocean warming means the eco-system is unbalanced and, together with over-fishing, there is less food for the birds.
“It is a very serious situation.”

When Torrey Canyon happened there was no lack of helping hands: “Then, as now, there are always huge numbers of people who are willing to help recover birds and clean the beaches. The problem was that this was all new: no-one knew what to do and how to save the birds and there were conflicting theories. The vast majority of birds died.”

Today, they know what to do but do not have the resources to cope in the event of another oil disaster: “The associations have a network of volunteers with real knowledge. But not enough money has been invested in rescue centres.
“After the Erika in 1999, we managed to persuade the authorities to include saving sealife in the national Polmar plan – put into action if there is another oil spill – and a whole network of rescue centres was promised... but only
a few have been set up.

“I know there is not much public money, yet the government talks about saving the planet for future generations but doesn’t act.
“One positive step forward is that regulations and court cases have resulted in big fines.

“That means far fewer ships are dumping fuel into the sea and we don’t see so many damaged birds on a regular basis. 

“But if there is another big oil spill it will be very complicated – and even if we know what to do now it will be difficult to carry out because of a lack
of money and facilities.”

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