The day the sea turned black

Galician seafood gatherers recall the aftermath of the Prestige disaster; some revealing a troubled conscience over the money earned in the clean-up

Goose barnacle gatherers Juan José Quiza (l) and Roberto Castro, who helped with the clean-up job.
Goose barnacle gatherers Juan José Quiza (l) and Roberto Castro, who helped with the clean-up job.ULY MARTÍN

When Francisco Haz Soneira, 66, gets up in the morning, the only dark thing he sees is the crow that lives in his courtyard in Muxía, A Coruña province. The bird talks, although all it says is: "Paco." "The other bird I had talked a lot, but it flew away. Not this one; this one always comes back."

Francisco would rather talk about the crow than about the first thing he saw 10 years ago when he got up. The world was tainted black: the street lamps, the swings, the pebble beach and even the waves. It was all coming out of that ship in distress, the one that authorities had said two or three days before was far away from the coast, but which he had personally seen two or three miles from a point called Punta da Buitra.

Francisco's son Antonio, or "Toñico," who was 24 at the time, heard the vessel's name on the radio for the first time at around 3am: the Prestige. It was the first of thousands of mentions.

"It was one of those winter days when it rains a lot and you can't see a thing," recalls Toñico, who's been a goose barnacle gatherer since the age of 16. "The smell was already in the air and you could tell from the gulls that something was wrong. The next day I looked out the window that looks out to sea and the beach was already black."

It was Saturday, November 16, 2002, and the tar from the Prestige had already blackened 190 kilometers of Galician coastline. The Prestige, an ageing single-hull oil tanker, eventually sank and spilled some 60,000 metric tons of fuel oil that contaminated 1,600 kilometers of coastline from the mouth of the Miño, between Galicia and Portugal, to the French Atlantic coast. It was the worst environmental disaster ever recorded on the peninsula.

They gave us a lot of money at first, but it's now that we have problems"

"We talked to the TV stations, wondered whether we'd get paid or not... but nobody did anything," Antonio continues. He and six or seven other seafood gatherers went down to the beach in their water clothes with some trash bags in their hands. A neighboring woman made them sandwiches and the next day she joined them down at the beach. "Soon people started to call from universities, saying they wanted to come clean up, and later came the white overalls. If you used the same clothes for a week, when the tar dried it got hard. We looked like robots."

In the initial confusion, authorities tried to prevent volunteers and seamen from going down to clean the polluted coast, alleging they were not covered by insurance. "We ended up being hired by Tragsa [a public company]; I didn't think that was so good, but oh well..."

"It was a shame. The volunteers were there working away, and we were just standing there staring at them. Very bad," says Francisco Toba Muiño, now 63. Eventually, he and Francisco Haz were hired to help clean because goose barnacle men were the only ones with the ability to extract the tar from the small coves and slippery pebble beaches where the volunteers could not go.

"It was very tough, especially the first few days. A baño weighed 40 to 50 kilos when it was full of pitch; imagine walking with that over the stones..." recalls Francisco Haz.

"Muxía was Ground Zero because it is right by the sea, but there was more tar here," say residents of Santa Mariña, a hamlet with a population of under 100. Everyone here makes a living from the sea. At the fishermen's brotherhood, which includes people from the nearby Arou and Camelle, there were 150 goose barnacle gatherers at the time. With Tragsa's financial support, "we argued a lot as usual, but we all signed up for cleaning duties from day one, taking the tar inland and laying it out on a base we made with wooden boards, since there were no containers," says José Manuel Blanco Castro.

If this had happened in Vigo, maybe we wouldn't have gone to help"

Would they have cleaned it up if they hadn't been paid for doing so?

"I don't know. I think so, because it was sad, there was so much of it... and so thick it was like slicing bread; but I am glad they paid us," says Juan Quiza Carril, from Camariñas, who spent several days on cleanup duty.

Esther Tajes is a talkative lady. She says she knows the fuel oil reached France because she went to the sanctuary of Lourdes and saw the tar with her own eyes in the Basque resort of Biarritz. Her son Iván, who besides being a barnacle gatherer is also a diver, has personally seen clumps of fuel still sitting under the sea.

Esther and Olga Aufiero are among the few female seafood harvesters in Santa Mariña. Olga is very clear about the fact that the Prestige oil spill was good business. "With the sea you never know how much you're going to earn, or if you're going to earn anything. I had just bought a boat for seven-million-pesetas [equivalent to 42,000 euros], which I'll finish paying off this winter. A seaman then earned 40 euros a day [as compensation] because of the ban on fishing, another 40 euros for cleaning, and if he had a boat that was another 80 euros right there, plus tonnage. So 2,000 or 3,000 euros a month, and we got the money instantly... I don't know if other politicians would have done the same for us. That doesn't mean we're not grateful for what the volunteers did. But if this had happened in, say, Vigo, maybe we wouldn't have gone to help."

Regarding the benefits that resulted from the black tide, a lot of real estate development was promised in the area - everything from state-run hotels to giant residential estates - but the property bust put an end to those plans. So people in Muxía continue to live off the sea.

"They paid us what they had to pay us, and they gave us a lot of money at first, but it's now that we have problems," says Juan Quiza Carril. "The first two years, after being untouched for a year, there were a lot of goose barnacle, but now there are no mussels, and without them there are no barnacles."

Francisco Haz also admits that they were well paid. "Why? I don't know." His son Antonio has a view, however: "Money isn't everything. If another oil tanker came along, without elections around the corner, it wouldn't be the same."

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