Prague, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On the agenda at this week's meeting of the UN's International Maritime Organization in London is how best to protect some of the world's most valuable marine environments.
The Pacific Ocean region around the Galapagos Islands, the Atlantic Ocean region around the Canary Islands, and the Baltic Sea are at the center of discussions. All have been nominated for "Particularly Sensitive Sea Area" (PSSA) status -- a designation that would allow stricter environmental regulations to be established in those regions.
Concerning the Galapagos and Canary islands, there is little disagreement. But the Baltic Sea has created controversy. Eight Baltic Sea states -- Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden -- favor including the sea on the PSSA roster. But Russia is opposed and has enlisted the help of Liberia and Panama -- two other major shipping nations -- to try to block the measure.
"It would just mean that the area would be safer and under less risk from a shipping incident, say the size of the 'Prestige,' which, if it occurred in the Baltic, would be absolutely disastrous because the water exchange in the Baltic is very slow and things would be very slow to come back to normal. So a disaster like the 'Prestige' in the Baltic could possibly be irreversible."
The reason, according to Simon Walmsley, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) delegation at the conference is simple: oil. "The Russians are not supporting this because they've obviously got new oil fields being exploited in the Baltic and they want to transport oil out of the Baltic and into the Baltic and [they want these sectors] to remain high on their international trade, so they're opposing what they see as a restriction to their trade in oil," he told RFE/RL.
As Russia's oil extraction rates and exports continue to grow, Moscow is looking to use all available means to get crude to Western markets. If the Baltic Sea were to be classified as a PSSA zone, this could force tankers to stick to narrow shipping lanes, avoid some parts of the sea altogether, and adopt additional measures to ensure greater safety -- all adding to cost and inconvenience for oil shippers.
Walmsley explained: "All that we're asking at the moment is that the PSSA for the Baltic be accepted in principle and then we can discuss these associated protective measures. And the associated protective measures would include things such as areas to be avoided. So if you have a particularly special area or an area that's difficult for navigation, it would have to be avoided. [There would also be measures] like compulsory pilotage, where you would get local pilots on board that would steer ships through particularly difficult areas, and also there are things like mandatory reporting, so they would have to report the movement of their vessels 24 hours or 48 hours before actually coming into that Baltic area."
In the European Union, the sinking of the oil tanker "Prestige," which broke apart in stormy waters off the Spanish coast in November 2002, sounded an alarm bell. The 70,000 tons of oil that spilled from the "Prestige" contaminated more than 2,000 kilometers of coastline in Spain, Portugal, and France, and shut down fishing fleets for an entire season.
The ageing single-hulled tanker began its journey in Latvia. Experts say that had it sunk in the Baltic Sea -- which already suffers from high levels of industrial pollution -- the effects could have been catastrophic. That is why, as Walmsley said, most countries in the region have decided to unite behind the PSSA designation.
"It would just mean that the area would be safer and under less risk from a shipping incident, say the size of the 'Prestige,' which, if it occurred in the Baltic, would be absolutely disastrous because the water exchange in the Baltic is very slow and things would be very slow to come back to normal. So a disaster like the 'Prestige' in the Baltic could possibly be irreversible," Walmsley said.
Over the past six years, the volume of oil carried by tankers through the Baltic has doubled. By 2017, experts estimate it will rise again to triple its present level. By then, the odds of a major accident, unless current rules are tightened, could also rise apace.
At present there are five PSSA areas in the world -- Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Sabana-Camaguey Archipelago off Cuba, the Malepelo Island off Colombia, the Florida Keys in the United States, and the Waddens Sea, also off Australia's north coast.
The International Maritime Organization meeting, which is to decide on the Baltic's future, ends on 2 April. Russian representatives attending the London meeting did not grant RFE/RL's request for an interview.