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Oil Smothers Spanish Villages' Livelihoods

Fish-dependent region watches spill with dread in what should be the most lucrative season. Many doubt promises of government aid.

November 23, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAION, Spain — The oil slicks, one of them 20 miles long, are sinister. They move at the whim of the elements, their directions shifting in strong winds and high waves. The villages here on the Galician coast can't predict when or where the next spill from the sunken tanker will wash in. So they watch, and wait. It is a tedious vigil, even for a region that for centuries has tied its fate to the cruel uncertainties of the seas.

Just beyond the cove, where the waves slam into the cliffs, Ramon Rodriguez Vazquez stares out toward the gooey mess keeping him from his tiny treasure.

It is low tide and Vazquez should be in the mist, crawling between the sea and the rocks and filling his bucket with percebe barnacles, a thumb-sized Spanish seafood delicacy. But his bucket is at home and his callused hands are stuffed in his trousers, and all he can do is commiserate with the other guys about the oil rolling in with the tide, fouling the beaches and spattering the promenade lights.

"Eighty percent of the people here are tied to the ocean," he said. "We are very worried."

The tanker Prestige that broke apart and sank in rough seas earlier this week has smeared 250 miles of coastline with about 15,000 tons of oil and kept 1,000 fishermen and shellfish harvesters off the water. The coastal towns don't know whether the other 65,000 tons of oil that sank with the vessel will resurface and ooze toward them.

The disaster is spoiling the approaching holiday season, when northern Spanish fishermen usually triple their incomes because of increased demand for mussels, sardines, mackerel and cod.

"There will be no Christmas," said Angela Franco, sitting in a cafe near a picture of Caion's patron saint, the Virgin of Miracles. "Our people live out of the sea. What will happen in the summer? The tourists won't come. No seafood, no tourists. We cleaned the beach two days ago. Today, it's disgusting again. It will be like this for months."

Four oil slicks whipped by 55-mph winds are streaming toward the cape of Estaca de Bares north of Caion. Spanish authorities said emergency crews had laid 34,000 yards of floating barriers to block the oil from reaching rivers and streams near several towns and the Corrubedo wildlife refuge.

Spain has asked France to deploy a ship with sophisticated underwater technology to survey the sunken tanker, which sits 133 miles off the coast at a depth of 14,000 feet.

Portuguese officials reported on Friday that a new spill had appeared near where the Prestige went down. This would indicate that some of the entombed oil was leaking from the single-hull vessel. The Spanish government said the spill was most likely part of an earlier slick, adding that scientists believe the cargo has solidified in the deep, frigid waters.

The Caion fishermen's headquarters is a sullen place. Men fill out forms and stand in line on newspapers so their oily boots won't stain the floor. The regional government will give each fisherman $900 a month -- in December, most would have earned triple that.

The national government, which has closed those 250 miles of fishing waters, announced a $200-million aid package Friday to subsidize some of the industry's losses.

"My crew is doing what I'm doing, crossing my arms and waiting," said Evaristo Lareo Vinas, president of the Caion Fishermen's Assn., whose 27-ton sardine trawler is docked. "We cannot lose strength."

Most people in Caion won't believe that the national government money is coming until they fold it into their wallets. Spanish authorities made similar promises in December 1992, when at least 70,000 tons of crude oil leaked from a tanker and spoiled Caion's fishing waters. Aid checks never showed up for most fishermen, and some think it's hubris for the government to make another pledge.

"Promises, promises," Franco said. "This is the fourth oil spill in 20 years, and the government takes 10 years to pay, and with no interest."

Angry fishermen throughout the region blame Madrid for not better protecting the coast from single-hull tankers, which are prone to accidents. Government officials said the Prestige -- a 26-year-old vessel -- had been cited at least three times for safety violations in ports around the world. Spain is suing the owners and jailed the captain for negligence shortly after the ship's hull cracked in stormy seas.

"It's so bad we can't even fish off the rocks," said Justo Iglesias Freire, a retired fishing boat captain. He chewed on a toothpick as he stood along the cove, where a dozen boats have been dry-docked near scattered nets and lobster traps. The scent of fish and brine was overpowered by the metallic tang of oil, and just behind Freire, a rainbow bent over a beach and rocky inlet that were stained black.

"We're eating beef and frozen stuff," said Freire's buddy, Antonio Fuentes Iglesias.

"Yeah, I do miss eating fish," Freire said. "This is the worst disaster to hit us."

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