Photo: Alex Laurel.

The Prestige disaster was an oil spill off the coast of Galicia caused by the sinking of the single-hulled oil tanker ‘Prestige’ in 2002. The spill polluted thousands of kilometers of coastline and more than a thousand beaches on the Spanish, French and Portuguese coasts and is the largest environmental disaster in Spain and Portugal’s history.

Oil spills get the infamy, the attention, the scorn and condemnation, but ten years on after the Prestige disaster poisoned our shores in toxic black death, what issues are looming over your seascape like pending disaster? And even without ‘accidents’ what about the slow deathly trickle of modern man’s toxic ways? While you might cry over the Prestige disaster before popping into town for sushi, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the last decade, commercial fishing killed more birds than every global oil spill since the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 put together. Is the big threat to your blue ocean the sinister movers and shakers behind Big Oil? Is it some kind of axis of consumer capitalist evil? Is it… you?

A Q&A with Paul Johnson from the Greenpeace Research Lab at University of Exeter.

Ten years after Prestige, how has the situation changed with regard to the threat of a similar disaster?

In many ways, there has been very little change at all. All the time we’re committed to transporting vast quantities of oil or other toxic chemicals around the world by ocean tankers, there is always potential for accidents. While there has been some change in terms of the use of double hulls for most cargo ships, there will still always be the potential for accidents, whether by human error or mechanical. There has also been a trend for ships and their cargoes to get bigger, thus increasing the potential impact of any accident that may occur.

What would be the way of tackling this?

Basically, reduce the amount of tanker miles travelled, chiefly by using renewable energy sources in the automotive and transport sectors and by reducing the manufacture of plastics, thus reducing our dependency on oil. Plastics themselves are a major problem, not only in their use of oil, but as a pollutant once used and discarded. If you go to the Arctic Ocean or the Southern Ocean in Antarctica today and put a net down in the middle of open ocean, you’ll pull up plastic particles.

What would be the main threats to oceans and coastlines surfers should be aware of?

Well, without putting a ranking on them as such, commercial fishing and ocean acidification would be the joint main threats. Overfishing causes decimation of marine life on a massive scale across the world and has been known to be unsustainable for some time. Acidification caused by carbon dioxide is a big problem that has far reaching impacts that we are only beginning to become fully aware of, and nobody has come up with a plausible way of dealing with it yet, other than the obvious, to reduce our CO2 output. Next on the list would be chemical pollution and sewage, these are things usually occurring closer to shore that surfers or other coastal users might be aware of. Then, the next threat would be in the form of coastal development. More and more people are coming to live in coastal cities and there is a big impact of that population on the intereface between land and sea.

Are you one of those people who likes to go for sushi and instagram it? Do you love it? Well congratulations, you are fucking the sea to death. Bon appetit!

Surfers like to see themselves as coastal custodians, but how are we viewed by the broader environmental activist community? Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?

There are probably two sides to the answer to that question. On the one hand, surfers in the quest for the perfect wave, chasing them around the world are part of the problem in that air travel has a significant environmental impact. In that regard, surfers, just like everybody else need to ask themselves some tough questions about whether or not all this air travel is something they should be doing. On the other side, the surfing community in general has put in some great efforts into improving the quality of coastal ecosystems. OK, it might be motivated by self-interest, but it has had a significant impact. Surfers Against Sewage for example in the UK have done a lot to make people aware of issues relating to water quality that previously the general public cared little about. So the surfing communities credentials are a bit mixed, but they certainly deserve credit for what good they have done, and the good they will continue to do.