Shetlanders Cope with Tainted Fish and Farmland Island People Are Caught between the Need to Downplay the Oil Spill for Tourism Reasons, While Emphasizing Their Need for Adequate Compensation

By Christopher Andreae, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 16, 1993 | Go to article overview

Shetlanders Cope with Tainted Fish and Farmland Island People Are Caught between the Need to Downplay the Oil Spill for Tourism Reasons, While Emphasizing Their Need for Adequate Compensation


Christopher Andreae, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


`WE didn't ask for the Braer to be wrecked here," says George Black, one of the crofters who farm the fertile land in the southernmost part of Shetland. He adds philosophically: "All kinds of things have been thrown at Shetlanders over the centuries, but we always survive."

Wind seems to be what is chiefly thrown at Shetlanders: January saw 21 days of winds continuously at gale force. These winds made it impossible for experts to do much more than look on after an oil tanker ran aground Jan. 5. The American-owned, Liberian-registered tanker Braer bottomed close to the shore at Garth's Ness near the foot of this 70-mile- long group of islands - the most northerly land in Britain. The winds and gigantic waves broke up the Braer, dispersed the oil out to sea and up the coastline, and sprayed it over the land.

Some 85,000 tonnes of light crude oil, en route from Norway to Quebec, spilled, with an unspecific amount of bunker oil.

A spill of light crude was an unfamiliar problem: The resulting contamination of farmland, in particular, is unusual if not unprecedented. How to cope with this livelihood-threatening development, when sheep and cattle have to be kept off grass and vegetables are condemned for human consumption, is challenging a welter of local and government departments and officials, the claims office of the Norwegian insurers for the tanker, and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund set up at Lerwick, Shetland's capital. No one believes that the complex maze of enquiry, damage assessment, and compensation through which affected Shetlanders are now obliged to walk is going to be quickly navigated.

Crofters aren't the only ones who have been thrown into the ensuing maelstrom of concern about long-term effects. Two other important industries on Shetland, fishing and salmon farming, are also disrupted. Oil has tainted about 20 percent of the salmon farming on Shetland. The stock now almost ready for marketing will be destroyed. Some salmon farmers, wanting a clean slate, are also calling for the slaughter of younger stock. Nobody knows whether these younger salmon may grow out of the toxicity and become salable in due time.

Also, nobody is willing to say what method should be used to dispose of the slaughtered fish. The Shetland Islands Council is impatiently waiting for the Scottish Office of the British government to make such decisions, but the Scottish Office seems as reluctant to decide this as it has been to release results from scientific tests of slaughtered sheep in affected areas. Some Shetlanders accuse the government of dragging its feet; others are more tolerant, acknowledging the bureaucratic and scientific complexities involved.

The tourist industry, though bringing less money to Shetland than fishing and fish-farming, also fears consequences from the Braer disaster, because it depends largely on the attraction of the islands' pristine wildness. It is seeking funds to launch an image-improving advertising campaign.

The islanders find themselves caught between the need to downplay the disaster (so that people will not be put off buying salmon or coming here to see the spectacular bird population during the breeding season) and the need to emphasize just how badly they have been affected by the spill (in order to make sure compensation is adequate.)

John Goodlad, Secretary of the Shetland Fishermen's Association, is outspoken on the need to "keep things in proportion. …

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