TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, on February 15, 1996, the Sea Empress oil tanker was entering the mouth of the Cleddau Estuary on her way to Milford Haven.

Unfortunately for the tanker and the wildlife around the Pembrokeshire coast, she would run aground off St Anne’s Head, hitting rocks that damaged the hull of the ship.

She was carrying 130,018 tonnes of Forties light crude oil according to the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch’s 1997 report, with 71,800 tonnes slowly starting to spill into the sea, polluting 120km of coastline according to Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

Around 40 per cent of the spilt oil evaporated and was blown away from the shore.

Western Telegraph: Picture: Gareth Davies PhotographyPicture: Gareth Davies Photography

The oil spill was the cause of the deaths of thousands of birds and marine life and affected the local fishing industry with orders put in place banning fishing in the affected areas. These orders were beginning to be lifted around three months after the spill as testing of the waters and fish showed returns to normal.

There was found to be no severe death toll relating to the fish but wildlife such as starfish and molluscs were affected, with large numbers being washed ashore.

One of the affected creatures was the cushion starfish, mainly found in rockpools on West Angle Bay – the population of the rare species in 1996 went from 150 to 13 after the spill. However, in 1997, it was found that there were only five of the cushion starfish but they all produced eggs and therefore more starfish.

The effect on seabirds could have been much worse had it been at a later point in the year, but the majority of migratory birds had not yet returned to their Pembrokeshire nesting locations.

Around 7,000 birds were collected covered in oil and the ITOPF report states around half of them survived and were released into the wild after cleaning. However, around 23 per cent of the guillemots that were rescued died shortly after being released.

The reduction of guillemots and razorbills decreased by 13 and seven per cent respectively following the oil spill.

Western Telegraph: Picture: Gareth Davies PhotographyPicture: Gareth Davies Photography


Efforts to bring the Sea Empress into port were unsuccessful for the first few days due to severe weather – with it being removed on February 21 according to a Parliamentary report.

A multi-agency team and volunteers of around 1,000 people spent weeks working to remove oil from the beaches and rescue oil-covered birds.

Within six weeks of the spill, the beaches were visibly clean and available for public use according to International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), however, some clean up operations were still going on around 18 months later.

Andrea Winterton, NRW’s marine services manager said on the 25th anniversary: “More than 2,000 dead or oiled seabirds were collected in the aftermath of the spill in Pembrokeshire. But the oil drifted much further – and into Carmarthen Bay where we know at least 3,500 common scoter died.

“Huge swathes of shoreline were oiled, impacting a large number of beaches and rocky shores, saltmarsh and mudflats. As well as sea birds, other marine wildlife on the shore was smothered, including seaweeds, rockpool life and shellfish such as cockles and mussels.”

Within a decade of the spill, the decline in sea bird numbers had been reversed and there were no known long-term impacts on marine animals, such as dolphins and seals.

Within two to five years, the majority of the affected shores and shallow seabeds were returned to normal.