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Our seabirds still need help

March 2017

bird covered in oil

Many of us may well remember being aware of a dramatic tragedy that occurred in March 1967. The event was the sinking of the Torrey Canyon oil tanker carrying 120,000 tons of crude oil. She was wrecked just off west Cornwall and really was the first officially recognised environmental disaster on this scale.

Tens of thousands of seabirds were killed, including guillemots, razorbills, puffins, shags, great northern divers, red throated divers, gannets, black-necked grebes, great skuas and gulls.

Even worse, the detergents used in the clean up attempts also killed thousands of birds. Dead birds were being washed up all along the coastlines of Cornwall, Guernsey and Brittany in France.

Other marine life including limpets, sea anemones, sandhoppers, crabs and even seaweed were also affected.

All in all, it was an unprecedented disaster and this week, on the 50th anniversary of the event, the RSPB says the risk of marine pollution can never be eliminated.

Tony Whitehead, speaking to Laterlife for the RSPB in the South West, said: “The tragedy was a watershed moment for the public and government. It highlighted the risk that oil pollution (and inappropriate response action) poses to the marine environment and its wildlife. It also revealed shortcomings in tanker design and shipping practices and the lack of effective response plans.”

The event was a catalyst for regulation to reduce the risk of such incidents reoccurring, and one outcome is MARPOL, an international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships.

However Mr Whitehead said the risk of marine pollution can never be eliminated.

As a consequence, the UK government and other countries acted with greater urgency to improve policies and practices for preventing and responding to oil spills. One outcome was MARPOL, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, one of the most important international marine environmental conventions.

The English Channel and the Western Approaches to the UK are the busiest shipping routes in the world and cargoes shipped now include increasing volumes of Hazardous Noxious Substances (HNS).

While a Beached Bird Survey run by the RSPB shows chronic oil pollution is becoming more infrequent, marine pollution is still a problem has been demonstrated by several major incidents in recent years.

For example, in south west England, a minimum of 2,294 birds were recorded oiled by the Napoli in 2007 in Lyme Bay, Dorset while in 2013 mysterious incidents resulted in the deaths of at least 4,000 birds.

The number of seabirds affected by marine pollution depends on factors including location and time of year. The timing of the Torrey Canyon disaster was particularly unfortunate as many seabirds were moving through the area on their way to their breeding sites.

Mr Whitehead says our seabirds today are still facing many threats, including marine development proposals affecting areas of importance for foraging, accidental by-catching, rats predating eggs and chicks on nesting islands, and now climate change seriously disrupting food chains for some species.

Pollution from our very crowded shipping lanes is also still a hazard.

Mr Whitehead says incidents such as the Torrey Canyon remind us of the vulnerability of seabirds to pollution and the responsibility of all countries to minimise the risks through measures such as strong international legislation. Prevention really is the only cure when it comes to oil pollution.”

The RSPB is running various campaigns to help protect the marine environment.

More information is available on the RSPB website at:


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