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Opinion & Analysis

The impact to our coastline

Last week's clean-up operation in Rosia Bay. Photo by Johnny Bugeja.

by Janet Howitt, ESG chairperson

The departure of Gas Venus from Gibraltar marks another stage in a very sad state of affairs regarding oil spill frequencies and their impacts on our coastline and marine environment.
This latest oil spill has created a deep sense of frustration and anger in many of us who love nature, our beaches and ecology. For those on the frontline dealing with the spill the task is further complicated by the tricky and challenging coastline at Rosia Bay, the worst hit, this time round. The ship may have gone but the clean up will continue for time to come…

There has been wide media coverage on the extraordinary efforts by port contractors and the Dept of the Environment, led by CEO Liesl Mesilio and Joseph Gracia, in liaison with Captain of the Port. The dynamic nature of any oil spill and clean up will always result in a tailored approach, but on this occasion, unprecedented steps were also taken, supported by large machinery (crane and JCB), to remove contaminated material for offsite cleaning. This was decided by the department and team, in an effort to deliver quicker results and reduce the impact on surrounding habitats and wider marine environment. A lot of very hard work, once again. This action was very well received by all at the frontline understanding the many hours of mopping up of oil this reduced.

The period of ‘crisis’ which occurs the moment an oil spill alarm is raised, to the setting up of protocols supported by necessary equipment and other resources, is always shocking and underlines the fear and panic that is present until such time as the full picture of the scale of the oil spill is known. Then, the grim work begins.

The clean up teams, have literally thrown themselves into containing and removing the spread of this heavy fuel oil that also produces highly toxic fumes in hot sunshine, of which there has been plenty! It is a very difficult task, demanding long days and physically arduous activity, exhausting. A spill, we are told, that took seconds to occur, but has lasting impacts and will take weeks and months and gruelling effort to address.

Lessons are learnt from every spill and what’s clear is that more must be done to reduce these to virtually zero at a port that carries the reputation of being the largest bunkering provider in the Mediterranean. This means a massive turnover of product and profits made, and demands that investment is made by industry to eliminate all avoidable accidents. Our natural environment facing these tankers 24/7 deserves no less.

Much discussion has ensued on some of the changes that could be considered to start with; although a serious and considered follow up by all stakeholders is necessary and is planned. Among the possible changes are:
Setting southern anchor points further from coast, or eliminating these completely
Ensuring greater supervision from the port on every transaction (not simply relying on vessel reputation (record)
Ensuring bunker provider assumes responsibility too and is publicly named and standards checked
Banning bunkering in our waters during poniente conditions
Preventative measures such as increasing boom resources and storage of these close to vulnerable areas
Installing fixed anchor points on south-western parts of our coastline to place ocean grade booms and prevent more of the oil from reaching land.

There are many more, including need to publish full details of any incident to ensure all vessels using Gibraltar Port do not repeat errors made. Fines should be large enough to be a deterrent and encourage highest standards involved in fuel transactions. Gibraltar’s Green Port Status and targets for this should be reviewed as well as publishing a Port Climate Action Plan to better understand how global shipping changes to address climate change are being implemented at our busy bunkering port.

We must also remember that Rosia Bay is a major heritage asset, which has been pummelled over time and is now also soiled by the heavy fuel oil; a reminder that this precious asset is screaming out for care and attention to be preserved for future generations also. As someone who has rolled up sleeves and taken part in most of our oil spills I, and the rest of the ESG, take our hats off to everyone including volunteers from TNP who have contributed to try and save this part of our beautiful coastline.


What follows is a quick recap of where we have come from in terms of shipping and bunkering in Gibraltar from the ESG’s perspective. Clearly and more recently Climate Change demands us to make greater efforts in diversifying from trading in fossil fuels and a plan must be laid for this as soon as possible.

As far back as 2003 the ESG campaigned for safer shipping practices in response to the growing air, noise and marine pollution associated with shipping activity from our port.1 At the time single hull vessels were serviced with associated risks of spills, no VTS (Vessel Tracking Services) was in place to coordinate the ever growing cross border maritime traffic, and no vapour recovery technology was used to contain fumes regularly gassing our schools and residential areas. Protests were held by NGOs on both sides of the border demanding standards were raised as spills, collisions and near misses were rising with alarming frequency from both jurisdictions, also calling for cross border port co-operation. ( Archives). We met with the Port authorities and sitting Captain on a regular basis as well as held campaigns to call on Government to play its part in regulating this growing, polluting industry in our waters, urging for best practice and technologies to be implemented.

It took a collision leading to the sinking of the New Flame in 2007, where a disaster was averted due to 2nd vessel being double hulled (and full of fuel product), followed by Fedra in 2008, that slammed into our cliffs breaking up in 2, to accelerate the improvement and resourcing of the ports monitoring and vessel managing capacity. Clearly a major environmental catastrophe could have occurred had the second ship colliding with the New Flame not been double hulled.

Fedra leaked around 140 tons of heavy fuel oil into our waters that badly affected our coastline and rest of the bay. This time it took many months to clear and a huge bill met by offending ship owner. The ESG supported the Port in the clean up with experienced and hardened Clean up volunteers and worked alongside operators at Little, Camp and Rosia Bay. That oil was only the ships own engine fuel and not product – nevertheless the mess and costs to clear up were massive!

VTS was introduced in 2011 by which time Gibraltar had already increased bunker volume by 500% since 1990 - up to 4million tonnes.2 The community will well remember the pervasive, thick, rotten egg smells and how heavily impacting bunkering was at the time. We shifted our focus to vapour recovery systems, which eventually saw closed loop systems installed in the fuelling supply process. In this respect at least, we are better shielded from these fumes today.

In recent years we are seeing an increase in oil spills with ship Captains fined for negligence much of the time. Response by port, contractors and community volunteers follow but it’s always a long-term, laborious effort to try and recover our coastline from this regular contamination, so destructive to our living marine environment. People rightly say these negligent oil spills should not be happening in such a busy port. Where is the supplying company and their responsibility when these incidents occur we ask? We also live, work and play on our coastline too and cannot be impacted in this way by an industry where profits are mainly siphoned off to external interests. We are told follow up meetings will be held with stakeholders to share concerns and recommendations ‘post Gas Venus’ incident with the authorities and hear of any changes that will be introduced to avoid similar accidents happening again in this way. We believe that supply companies should also be publicly named in any incident and checked for standards applied.

We also continue to suffer the noise from bunkering transactions, carried out 24/7 especially audible in the silent hours and windier conditions particularly in the south district. Sooty emissions continue to occur despite rules introduced to limit such emissions to only unavoidable. These contain particulates, as well as other gases which are harmful if inhaled and also contribute overall to smog, ozone etc. Globally the maritime industry is in discussion to work towards more sustainable and cleaner fuels and we can’t wait until this becomes the norm for all ships coming to Gibraltar. But it will all take time.

The spectre too of tankers filling our horizons on the west side is in sharp conflict with the beauty of our bay, and the tourism and leisure product we so want to expand. While stating that the Gibraltar port is exemplar to many others in terms of safety the threat these ships pose, anchored so close to shore, when spills occur, are a highly sobering reminder of the price we could one day pay for the not inconsiderable contribution to the economy Gibraltar enjoys from bunkering sales.

But it really wouldn't be enough.

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