Oil Spill That Caused The Largest Marine Life Loss Ever


Oil spill, which claimed the title of the worst environmental tanker disaster when it turned the sea black in, the sinking of the oil tanker, came to claim again the title of the world’s worst maritime oil spill, putting another dark spot in the environmental record of shipping and accounting for the largest loss of marine life ever recorded after an oil spill.


In the morning hours, the Liberian-flagged VLCC was en route from the Persian Gulf to Europe with more than 220,000 tonnes of crude oil, when an enormous wave hit the vessel, causing a steering failure and leaving the ship adrift towards the Breton coast in a heavy storm.

Tugboat assistance rushed to the scene, but inclement weather impeded the operations, pushing the ship further adrift near the shoreline.

Despite all the efforts, the VLCC ran aground on a rock outcropping, near the small port of Portsall, on the northwest coast of France. By the afternoon, the vessel broke just forward of the wheelhouse and the first oil slicks quickly reached the coast.

Inclement weather prevented an effective oil recovery operation and made the ship to split in three and sink in the following days, resulting in the largest oil spill of its kind in history to that date.


There were no injuries or fatalities, as the crew was rescued by the French Naval Aviation.

Environmental impact

Within the next two weeks, the entire cargo of over 220,000 tonnes of crude oil and 4,000 tonnes of bunker fuel was released into heavy seas, polluting more than 300 km of European coast.

Oil had contaminated 320km of the Brittany coastline, and had extended as far east as the Channel Islands.

The US NOAA estimates that the total oil spill amounted to 220,880 metric tonnes of oil. Although the total quantity of collected oil and water reached 100,000 tons, less than 20,000 tons of oil were recovered from this liquid after treatment in refining plants.

Marine life impact

Two weeks after the accident, millions of dead molluscs, sea urchins and other benthic species washed ashore. 

Echinoderm and small crustacean populations almost completely disappeared from some areas, populations of many species had recovered within a year. Other shell and fin fisheries as well as seaweed gathering were seriously affected in the short-term, as was tourism.

Diving birds constituted the majority of the nearly 20,000 dead birds that were recovered. Oyster cultivation in the estuaries (“Abers”) was seriously affected and an estimated 9,000 tonnes were destroyed because of contamination and to safeguard market confidence.


During investigation, it was found that

  1. Factor contributing to this incident was heavy weather, which caused the steering failure.
  2. Rough seas, along with the isolated location of the grounding, restricted cleanup efforts for the two weeks.
  3. Investigation indicated insufficient ship maintenance and poor design of the vessel’s steering mechanism.

Lesson learnt

  • This oil spill incident raising questions regarding safety of oil transportation in the world’s oceans.
  • This raised questions at that time about the nature of the huge ships themselves, and the lack of effective regulation of tankers sailing under “flags of convenience”.
  • Incident highlighted the need for tighter oil tanker safety and operational standards.
  • Incident caused french government to implement its plan for establishing a regulatory and operational framework for action in case of accidental pollution of the sea.

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Source: safety4sea


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