[History] The Huge Oil Spill that Shetland Survived


  • The 1993 oil spillage in Quendale Bay, Shetland was a catastrophe which vastly affected the flora and fauna of Scotland.
  • WWF Scotland believes that 25 years after the dreadful incident, the marine wildlife of the region is even more threatened by the pursuit of North Sea Oil.

On 5th January, 1993 the Braer oil tanker hit rocks in Quendale Bay, on the southern tip of Shetland due to an engine failure. Although the captain and crew were safely airlifted from the vessel but the catastrophe that followed couldn’t be avoided. According to WWF Scotland, at least 1500 birds and a quarter of the local grey seal died because of this 85000 tonnes of crude oil spillage.

As the Gulfaks crude carried by the Braer was lighter and easily biodegradable than North Sea crudes of present time, much of the damage was curtailed when the wind swept it out to the sea. “Everyone was ‘horrified’ because The Braer was carrying twice as much crude oil as the Exxon Valdez, which had run aground off Alaska four years earlier”, said the Shetland Journalist Jonathan Wills. “We were expecting the worst but it did not really happen. The wind blew the oil away”, he added

The Braer was traveling between Norway and Canada when it sent a “lost power” signal to the coastguard at 5:19. By 9:00 situation further worsened, raising concerns of the tanker being grounded near Horse Holm, somewhere in an island in Sumburgh Head. But the current carried it into the Quendale Bay spilling 84700 tonnes of oil into the sea.

Avoidable mistakes

Upon investigation several avoidable mistakes surfaced which could have prevented this unfortunate incident. The 1975 Japanese manufactured 800ft vessel lacked a double hull found in modern ships. Mistakes like moving all the crew off the ship and not letting them back to take a line from the newly-arrived salvage tug, after the crisis was averted further escalated the problem, said Mr Wills.

Confusion Regarding The Orders

A report published in 1994 largely blamed the weather for the unfortunate incident and put the onus on the ship’s captain Alexandros Gelis for lacking the basic skills of seamanship but actually a confusion over the orders was the main culprit. The heroic rescue efforts of the coast guard went unnoticed and further confusions ensued.

“They took all the crew off and landed them on the shore and the police took the crew to a hotel.Then the ship missed the rock and the captain of the ship, who I interviewed in Greece some years later, tried desperately, with the coastguards, to get his crew back on board but the police would not release his crew because there was a confusion over orders”, says Mr. Wills. He also says the presence of a salvage tug stationed in the north of Scotland is a good way of avoiding a future disaster.

Although the moratorium compensation imposed by the International Oil Pollution Fund was of £50m but a total compensation of £45m was paid over the next few years, till October 1995. In 2001 investigations into the disaster were reopened by the Liberal Democrat MP of Shetland, Jim Wallace, as claims of the area being unfit for sail were gaining grounds.

The Climate Change Impact

“Twenty-five years on the continued pursuit of oil from ever more challenging environments means that not only does Scotland’s precious marine environment remain at risk but we are also committing ourselves to fuelling dangerous climate change”, Dr Sam Gardner the acting director of WWF Scotland.

As the demands for oil is likely to increase in the next decade, WWF Scotland wants the UK Government to follow the example of France which passed a law last month in order to end oil and gas production by 2040. “The UK oil and gas industry takes its responsibilities for the environment extremely seriously,” Louise O’Hara Murray, environment manager for industry body Oil and Gas UK said in this regard.

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