International Papers

Sinking Prestige

The tanker Prestige sank Tuesday 133 miles off the coast of Galicia, Spain’s most important fishing region, carrying about 18 million gallons of heavy fuel oil. Around 2 million gallons of oil have already spilled along the Spanish coastline that produces most of Europe’s gourmet mussels, clams, and goose barnacles, shutting down the Galician fishing industry.

The spill set off a diplomatic squabble between Madrid and London when Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar claimed to have proof that the Prestige was headed for Gibraltar, a British dependency claimed by Spain, an assertion denied by British authorities. The Times of London summarized the he-said, he-said:

The Spanish case seems to boil down to this: that the Prestige has visited Gibraltar in the past and no inspection of an allegedly dangerous and unsafe ship had been carried out. But the British response is that the Prestige has only been anchored off Gibraltar—not in its port—once in the past four years. … Madrid’s tirade against Gibraltar may have something to do with an Anglo-Spanish negotiation that appears to be in tatters after the colony’s rejection of joint sovereignty in a referendum held two weeks ago.

The Independent pointed out that Spain’s implication that “if Gibraltar were under Spanish sovereignty all would have been well” is bunk, since EU law only requires ports to inspect 25 percent of the ships that call. What’s more, the Financial Times reported that the ship was inspected in the United States and the Netherlands in 1999, and the surveys identified only minor faults. Still, this is a particularly cosmopolitan disaster involving “a vessel that was built in Japan, registered in the Bahamas and owned by a Greek company; [that] set sail from Latvia, refuelled at Gibraltar—a British dependency—and is being tended in Portuguese waters by rescue teams that have come from France and the Netherlands.”

The globalization of the seas makes it hard to assign responsibility for the cost of cleanup. According to the Financial Times, “Lawyers say it has become increasingly difficult to enforce international maritime law at a time when companies and ship owners are cutting costs by registering their vessels in tax havens and hiring cheap, but often poorly trained, crews.” Spain’s ABC concluded, “In a case like that of the Prestige, the only thing clear is that it’s too early to say who will take responsibility for this accident, and where the funds will come from to pay for the costs of cleaning up the coastline and indemnifying all who are affected.”

Could anything have been done to prevent the ship from sinking? The Independent reported that the Prestige’s Greek captain is currently in detention in Spain, accused of failing to cooperate with rescue crews. When the 26-year-old vessel first ran into trouble on Nov. 13, several ports in both Spain and Portugal refused to harbor it. A British expert told the FT that “if the Prestige had been allowed into a Spanish port it could have been protected by calmer seas and booms to contain a spill, and the oil could have been removed.” Salvage agents tried to tow the ship toward Africa, which may have worsened the pollution by dispersing it over a wider area. According to a Spanish World Wildlife Fund spokesman quoted in La Razón, moving the ship farther out to sea wasn’t a demonstration of “ecological responsibility,” but rather a case of “sweeping the problem under the rug and passing it on to someone else.” ABC asserted with equal confidence that the damage would have been “much greater” if the government hadn’t moved the Prestige away from the coast as quickly as possible.

La Vanguardia of Barcelona said “the EU directives on maritime transport must be quickly introduced into domestic legal systems so ships like the Prestige are subject to the strictest possible preventative controls. … This isn’t a question of the loss of a few tons of goose barnacles, but of the collective security of the seas, and today security is an unavoidable priority.” The Independent noted that the “ultra-secrecy” surrounding the flag of convenience system was a major security hazard: “Often it is impossible definitively to establish exactly who controls a ship registered to a brass plate company in Panama or Liberia, deemed legally to be owned by whoever is carrying the ‘bearer shares.’ That is a set-up that allows organisations such as al-Qa’ida and the Tamil Tigers to operate considerable fleets, generating profits.” (For more on the flag issue, see thisSlate “Explainer.”) Le Monde of Paris concluded its editorial on an optimistic note: “Greece takes over the EU presidency at the beginning of 2003, and Cyprus and Malta, two great maritime powers, will join the union in 2004. … This is a chance for Athens to show that the fatherland of the sea gods will be able to be introduce rigor [into the system] after too many years of unforgivable laxity.”