Oil spill drill tests Algarve readiness

Every day, hundreds of ships travel along the Algarve coast. The threat of oil spills is very real, and to guarantee that authorities are prepared to respond to such an event, a maritime disaster exercise was held on Wednesday, May 15 in Quarteira, Loulé.

As Faro port captain Cortes Lopes explained, “authorities have to be prepared to respond if there is ever an oil spill here in the Algarve”. All it takes is one such event for the Algarve to face huge consequences, putting at risk its natural resources, the lives of thousands of marine animals and, ultimately, the region’s economy, with tourism the most affected sector.

Thus, the key is to be prepared. “The first goal is to improve our response performance,” captain Cortes Lopes told Barlavento newspaper.

“The second is to better cooperation between all the entities involved in tackling such calamities. Lastly, it’s vital to raise awareness about the environmental aspects and how best to intervene in these situations.”

These exercises are held at least once a year, he explained.

The initiative saw local maritime authorities responding to a simulated oil tanker spill off the coast of Quarteira. It was part of a national plan entitled ‘Mar Limpo’ launched in April and involved the regional maritime authority, civil protection services, Loulé firefighters, Zoomarine biologists as well as marine biology students from the University of the Algarve.

In the simulated scenario, the polluting material was “immediately contained” and put into a tank, with “two ‘turtles’ and two ‘dolphins’ affected by the contaminants”.

A team of biologists from Zoomarine theme park in Guia were asked to participate in the drill and show how these animals should be assisted before being taken to the rehabilitation centre.

Although around 200 ships travel along the Algarve coast every day, Captain Cortes Lopes stresses that oil spills are actually very rare. The last case was a palm oil spill which affected Armona, Culatra and Deserta islands in 2017.

“Two-hundred kilometres of beach were contaminated with 90 tons of palm oil,” he said, adding that it took two weeks and the tireless efforts of around 500 people to deal with the situation.

Other drill exercises were held inside the Docapesca facilities in Quarteira and involved other spill scenarios.

For Zoomarine, the initiative was important as it helped to keep the theme park ‘on its toes’ and better prepared to deal with marine animals affected by environmental disasters.

After checking the ‘animals’ (dolls covered in black colouring to make the experience as realistic as possible), the Zoomarine biologists cleaned their airways and examined their injuries.

“We protected their eyes and injuries and then stabilised them. Some may receive adrenaline shots or other medicine,” said biologist Élio Vicente.

If necessary, the animals will remain at Zoomarine’s rehabilitation centre for “days or even weeks” until they are ready to be released back into the wild.

“If, for some reason, the animal’s condition is unfavourable, it’s down to the Portuguese government to decide its fate,” he added.

Élio Vicente says that these exercises are “extremely complex and involve many resources and entities. We have to test our response. As with humans, animals’ lives can be saved or lost in just a minute. We have to ensure we act as fast as possible.”

Original Barlavento story by Maria Simiris