Academe sizes up Spain's oil spill crisis

December 20, 2002

As oil from the tanker Prestige washes up on the coast of Galicia in Spain, universities are preparing to assess the damage to local ecosystems. Part of the palaeontology department of La Coruna University has been converted into a lab for performing biopsies on birds killed by pollution.

Experts from La Coruna and Santiago de Compostela universities will look at the scale of the disaster. Student volunteers from Madrid were the first to arrive for the clean-up. Others have come from farther afield. Christine Abraham and Diane Humple, biologists and specialists in oil spill work at Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California, are overseeing a team of 15 postgraduates at La Coruna documenting data on dead and live birds.

Universities are playing a vital role in mobilising volunteers and know-how for the clean-up, but their biggest contribution will be assessing the damage once the spill has run its course. After the Prestige leaked 6,000 tonnes of oil into the sea before sinking with another 60,000 tonnes last month, storms drove slicks into the inlets of the Galician coast, threatening wildlife and livelihoods in a region famed for its seafood.

Miguel Torre, director of the Spanish Oceanography Institute at La Coruna, will monitor plankton and seabed fauna as soon as the situation stabilises. Jose Mora, professor of animal biology at Santiago de Compostela, has data on the fauna, sediments and hydrocarbon levels in much of the area before the spill, which will be useful in assessing the damage. His experience of the Aegean Sea oil spill in the same area ten years ago has shown him that the environment can take years to recover.

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