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An oiled guillemot (Pic: RSPB)
Environmental impact of MSC Napoli
By Laura Joint
Conservationists have been dealing with more than 1,600 oiled birds following the beaching of MSC Napoli off the East Devon coast. Meanwhile, local beaches have been left covered in debris.
Environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned over the long-term impact of the beaching of the container ship MSC Napoli.
The stricken vessel is grounded just off the East Devon coast at Branscombe - which forms part of the Jurassic Coast world heritage site.
Some 200 tonnes of light fuel oil leaked into the sea, and an operation was launched to transfer 3,500 tonnes from the vessel.
The RSPB and RSPCA are dealing with more than 1,600 oil-covered birds. Some will be cleaned up and released, but not all can be saved.
The RSPB has received reports of 200 oiled birds on the River Axe, and others have been spotted as far west as Slapton. Hundreds have also been found off the Dorset coast.
The RSPB says the the oil leak has been disastrous. Spokesperson Sophie Atherton said: "This is very bad news for the region's wildlife.
"We're making a conservative estimate that more than 1,600 birds have been oiled as a result of the Napoli incident so far.
The stricken MSC Napoli (Pic: Alec Collyer)
"But bearing in mind there are likely to be many more oiled out to sea we may never know just how bad this has been for the area's seabirds and the wider marine environment.
"It seems that guillemots are the species that's been worst affected. Once their feathers are oiled their plumage is no longer waterproof which means they cannot dive for food and without feeding have no way of flushing oil out of their bodies.
"Oiled guillemots will die even if there is only very little oil on them."
The RSPB's regional policy officer, Mark Robins said: "The huge number of birds so far affected only serves to highlight that prevention is the only cure.
"There is no clean-up that will compensate for this environmental damage. Our fear is that even further loss of birds and other wildlife is still a big risk."
He added: "Once the worst is over, the discussion must urgently shift from dealing with the fall-out to better methods of prevention."
The RSPB says the wreck of MSC Napoli may also threaten as many as 28 sites of special scientific interest, including the Exe Estuary and Chesil Beach and the Fleet SSSI.
Looters on Branscombe Beach (Pic: Alec Collyer)
Both of these are also Special Protection Areas protected by European law. The Fleet SSSI and Branscombe Bay are two of only three sites in the UK where the rare scaly cricket is found, while Berry Head SSSI hosts 400 breeding pairs of guillemots, the largest guillemot colony on the South West mainland.
The conservation charity has also spoken out about who should pay for the clean-up operation.
It is urging the government to strengthen legislation that would force polluters to pay for the damage caused to wildlife and nature reserves by incidents such as the Napoli.
Meanwhile, the RSPCA's West Hatch Wildlife Centre near Taunton is working flat out to deal with the oiled birds, and has asked members of the public who want to help to bring in towels and sheets.
Oil isn't the only problem. Beaches along the East Devon coastline have been strewn with debris from containers shed by the 62,000 tonne vessel.
The pollution has been made worse by looters rummaging through the containers.
Tourism bosses say the publicity about the pollution will undoubtedly damage business this year.
Meanwhile, there are fears it could take a year to remove the stricken ship from the area. The vessel sustained damage in storms 50 miles off the Cornish coast on 18 January.
It was being towed to Portland in Dorset for salvaging, when the decision was taken to beach it off East Devon amid fears the ship was about to sink.
last updated: 21/02/2008 at 16:59
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