Serious oil spill in the Waddensee -- background article provided by WWF

20/11/1998

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Background on the Waddensee oil spill

See the associated WWF press release

Pallas Accident

27-year-old Italian-owned cargo vessel MV Pallas, flying the flag of the Bahamas, transported wood from Sweden to Marocco when it got out of control in waters south west of the Danish city Esbjerg on 25 October 1998 due to a heavy fire onboard. One crew member died in the accident. Salvage tug assistance was first refused by the owner as the vessel was outside territorial waters. Later on Pallas was abandoned. Pallas was towed south west wards by smaller tug boats. However, several attempts to tug her to the open North Sea failed. The only sea going salvage tug Oceanic which is based at Heligoland in the German Bight was not made available in time until Pallas drifted into shallower waters and was beached on a sandbank south west of the island Amrum in the National Park Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea in the end of October. Since then, parts of the 600 tons of fuel oil and oil sludge onboard the vessel have steadily been released into the sea through the damaged ship hull. Due to strong winds and rough sea, the German oil spill response fleet was unable to combat the spill. Clean up operations started along the island beaches. Salvage measures onboard turned out to be difficult because of the high temperatures inside the vessel. On Thursday 12 November, under calm weather conditions, Dutch experts started preparing measures to unload the oil. As of 16 November, oil leak from wreck had been contained. However, activities to combat fire onboard and unload fuel oil are expected to last several weeks depending on weather conditions.

Approximately 20.000 birds, mainly eider duck, common scoter and waders such as dunlin have been affected by the Pallas oil spill. Hundreds of oiled birds were washed ashore at the beaches of the German islands Amrum, Sylt and Föhr and the Danish islands Rømø and Mandø, either being dead or having very little chance of survival. An oiled harbour seal had to be killed while seven others have been observed to be affected.

Wadden Sea Environment

The shallow tidal Wadden Sea covers an area of 10.000 square kms along the Dutch, German and Danish coast. Most of the area has been designated a national park or nature reserve as it is the largest coastal wetland and one of the last wilderness areas in Europe.

WWF has identified the Wadden Sea among 200 ecoregions of global importance for biodiversity on earth: the estuaries, salt marshes, tidal mud flats, sand banks and dune islands of the Wadden Sea are visited as a key stepping stone by 10-12 million migratory waterbirds annually. They rest and feed on the highly productive tidal flats that provide rich food supply such as cockles, mussles, shrimps, lugworms, flatfish, seagrass etc. The Wadden Sea also serves as a nursery for key commercial North Sea fish stocks and thousands of harbour seals.

Mud flats and salt marshes are known to be extremely sensitive to oil pollution. Twice a day, large areas are flooded at high tide and fall dry at low tide. For the Wadden Sea ecosystem, nutrients and plankton imported from the North Sea are vital. In case of an oil spill the tidal dynamics end up in a disaster: as soon as the mud flats get covered by layers of oil they are cut off from oxygen and nutrient supply and the bottom life suffers to death. Toxic oil components can get into the food chain. Once the oil gets in touch with the sediment or buried under its surface it can take decades until it is degraded and the assemblages of bottom organisms slowly recover.

The waters west of the German Wadden Sea islands Sylt and Amrum now being most seriously affected by the Pallas oil spill are likely to be designated a small cetacean sanctuary due to the large number of harbour porpoises observed in this area. In addition, this particular area is inhabited by the only grey seal colony in German waters. While the more common and numerous harbour seals reproduce in early summer, the rare grey seals start giving birth to their pups during the winter months.

Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA)

(From Marine Update 29, WWF United Kingdom, February 1997)

The UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) requires member states to protect rare and fragile ecosystems and the habitats of vulnerable species (Articles 194.5). But it also imposes a jurisdictional regime which gives states less authority to impose and enforce measures for the prevention of pollution and routeing of ships within their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) than in waters closer to shore. Within their territorial seas - up to 12 nautical miles offshore - countries may impose protective measures such as routes that could affect shipping activities, provided they do not hamper the innocent passage of foreign flagged vessels (UNCLOS Article 21).

Beyond 12 nautical miles - the EEZ and the high seas - freedom of navigation applies, and states can only impose international standards and regulations adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Furthermore, routeing measures adopted prior to 1997 in the EEZs are merely recommendations and are not binding - so coastal states have no means of ensuring that foreign vessels comply with them. From 1997, not all routeing measures adopted within EEZs will necessarily be binding - but the opportunity does now exist to make them so.

In 1991, the IMO approved guidelines for the identification of sea areas needing special protection, because of recognised ecological, socio-economic or scientific importance, and because they could be vulnerable to damage by maritime activities. These were to be known as Particularly Sensitive Seas Areas (PSSAs).

The first site to be identified was the Great Barrier Reef, the second one Cubas’s Sabana-Camarguey archipelago, but little progress has been made on other sites.

The IMO guidelines identify the criteria by which PSSAs should be identified. The measures that might be introduced are necessarily limited to those within the purview of the IMO. They include designation of an area as a Special Area under Annexes I, II or V of MARPOL, the application of certain discharge requirements, and the adoption of routeing or other measures relevant to the protection of specific sea areas against environmental damage from ships. Such precautions could be compulsory pilotage and vessel traffic management systems.

A PSSA has no definite size - the term "area" is flexible. The design of a PSSA, including a buffer zone, will depend on the environmental risk which should be reduced or eliminated.

In order to be identified as a PSSA, an area should meet at least one of a number of criteria which include:

  • Ecological: uniqueness - dependency - representativeness - diversity - productivity - naturalness - integrity - vulnerability
  • Social, cultural and economic: economic benefit - recreation - human dependency
  • Scientific and educational: research - baseline and monitoring studies - education - historical value

The criteria relate to PSSAs within and beyond the limits of a country's territorial sea. They can be used by the IMO to identify PSSAs beyond the territorial sea with a view to bringing about the development of international protective measures regarding pollution and other damage caused by ships. These criteria can also be used by national administrations to identify sensitive areas within their territorial waters.

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