Bird's eye view of oil overspill

March 1, 1996

At Dale Field Studies Centre, near the entrance to Milford Haven harbour, the director of studies is adding oil pollution studies to his course.

Julian Cremona hopes that the 14 universities and colleges booked into the centre this year will still come - despite oil from the wrecked supertanker Sea Empress that is coating his precious beaches.

Dale is a windswept fort adapted for ecological studies by students from around Europe, and schoolchildren. Last week it was chaotic with upset marine conservationists, crowds of people, the persistent ringing of phones, emergency equipment assembled for rescuing damaged sea life - but "not a single bird or seal" since then a 24-hour rescue operation has been running.

This year's students will not necessarily come. At Sheffield University, Tim Birkhead, professor in the department of animal and plant sciences, thinks that undergraduate work may not be possible on the oil-filmed beaches.

He says the cost of finding a suitable replacement - an unperturbed environment with an abundance of certain species - could be Pounds 30,000. "The amount of work in relocating is huge."

But Mr Cremona, crying ten days ago, is now bullish. "Oil spills don't usually happen in a place such as this where study has been done for 50 years. It's going to be fascinating to give students this data so that they can compare it with what they find now. There is a very positive side to the whole thing. "I don't see any problem in accommodating people. We can just shift between different beaches."

This unnerving sense of excitement can be found among other academics. Chris Wooldridge, lecturer in marine geography at the University of Cardiff, is agitated by flaws in harbour control and in clean-up. But he is delighted at the opportunities the accident affords his students.

"Six hours in the sea will tell them more than six weeks of lectures," he says. "It's going to have a profound effect on our field work."

They have been at the coast testing new clean-up methods. Soon they will survey over 100 miles of coastline, comparing results with past data.

A disaster can turn an academic into a campaigner. Just before the spill Dr Wooldridge completed a study of 300 harbours which showed that fewer than half have environmental management systems.

Now he has been on the radio complaining about lack of implementation of international environmental maritime regulations. "The Sea Empress has implications for every major oil port in the world."

But back at Sheffield, Professor Birkhead's agitation tends more towards the tragic.

For the past 25 years he has been studying the guillemots on the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, just outside the harbour, ringing their legs with plastic tags. He has watched with delight as the bird numbers, after 100 years of decline, miraculously started to rise after 1980. Now, he says, "a huge proportion of them will just disappear at sea."

Last week he watched on television the spread of the oil and the coated birds: "The irony was I saw on TV one of our ringed birds being picked up. It makes me want to cry really."

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