Europe’s Toxic Tide: How The Prestige Oil Spill Could Drag Down The Surf Industry

There’s a crisis 11,800 feet under the sea that could bury many of the gains the surf industry has made in the most dynamic growth area of the market — and far too few people understand the peril the surf industry is in.

The U.S. media is filled with the drums of war and the din has drowned out almost every other story, reduced them to 15-second sound bites or pushed them back to page A23. But when the oil tanker Prestige sank November 19 nearly 124 miles off the Galican coast of Spain, the surf industry took a gutshot that it’s still reeling from.

The Prestige was carrying 77,000 tons of petrol waste from Russia — a cargo far more toxic than the crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, and in the days and weeks after it sank, more than 25,000 tons of that cargo spilled out of its aging, single-layer hull and spread across the coasts of Portugal, northern Spain, and France like some black, toxic amoeba.

Now, despite the efforts of deep-sea submersibles trying to plug the remaining holes in the sunken ship, tons of oil still leak out from the damaged hull each day. That’s on top of the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 tons of oil waste that have already slicked up the Gulf of Gascogne.

The decisions leading to the loss of the Prestige were reckless at best and are likely to be found criminal. But whatever the causes, now the surf industry and the rest of the world must deal with the impacts of toxic oil washing ashore along the beaches of Europe’s top action-sports capital. There’s a possibility that some beaches could remain closed far into the busy European holiday season. There’s also a chance that the ASP European leg could be hosed yet again by a situation far beyond its control. It seems unavoidable that it may be years before some people in the region view the beaches and lineups as a safe place to visit.

During the month of February, visitors to the Basque coast witnessed a strange sight: miles of empty lineups; epic Hossegor A-frames going unridden as hundreds of firefighters and military personnel, dressed in protective suits, cleaned up the mess on shore. There are stories of surfers ignoring the posted beach-closure signs only to receive third-degree oil burns and 1,000-Euro fines for their ill-advised sessions.

Ultimately, no one knows the short and long-term implications of the spill. Estimates range from hopeful to absolutely dire. Robert Villenave, the mayor of the French town of Anglet, told Quiksilver that he believes the situation will soon improve. In an internal Quiksilver report, Villenave is quoted as saying, “We cannot believe what’s happening! We do our best to clean the oil each time it arrives. But it’s very demoralizing, as the work of the previous day has to be redone the day after. It’s the only solution if we want clean beaches for the spring.”

Didier Borotra, the mayor of Biarritz, told Quiksilver that he wants the truth to be told. “The beach is dirty {and then} six hours later, it’s clean. It’s the case for most of the beaches in Aquitaine (in southwest of France). Now, the question is to know how long it will last and how much it will cost.”

While it’s unclear when the mess will finally be cleaned up, the effects of the spill are already material. The tourist board noted a 35-percent decline in hotel reservations along the coast during the first months of the year, and more than 4,000 coastal jobs are in jeopardy.

But according to Harry Hodge, president of Quiksilver International Operations, “We believe there’s an air of optimism that by Easter the beaches will be open and the leaks in the Prestige — which have been temporarily plugged — will be permanently plugged and the excess oil remaining will be contained and then dealt with.”

Hodge believes the spill could be an awakening for our industry — and more importantly — for the “myopic politicians who allow such disasters to occur with an attitude that is reactive rather than proactive.”

“Personally, I think business will be down, as tourism will be down. That’s reality,” Hodge continues. “It’s like someone knowing in advance there will be a poor snow season in the European Alps before the season. It’s going to be tough.”

“The retailers have to survive and obviously, as our partners, we will do whatever we can to assist them,” says Hodge. “Fortunately, Quiksilver is one brand they probably need to stock to survive the season.”

Fernando Aguerre, co-founder of Reef, says the spill has been devastating for beach users of all types. “Especially because it’s an open-ended time bomb because it’s still leaking, and will continue to leak for the medium-term future,” he says.

“But I also believe there are positive effects,” continues Aguerre. “People, not only in Galicia, but all over Spain and the rest of Europe, are going to have zero tolerance for governments not enforcing double-hull boats for transport.”

Aguerre says Reef hasn’t seen any order adjustments from retailers for their spring orders, “But this is going to be bad for the spring and summer retail sales — especially after last summer, which was the worst in the 100 years with cold, windy, rainy days in all the Atlantic European resorts. I was there, and it was fucking bad.”

Oxbow’s Gaëtane De Volder says, “It’s totally unimaginable to envisage that the beaches may be closed for summer. The European surf industry is about to face hard times. Some of the smallest companies — shapers, surf schools, surf reports — are already on the verge of bankruptcy. In the longer term, bigger companies will be affected as well.”

“Shops are about to be delivered for summer, but with the lack of tourism, one can imagine that they may end the season with a lot of stock,” De Volder continues. “If that happens, they may be very cold to place orders for the winter season. The affects of the Prestige oil spill may last over several seasons. And besides the economy, the image of surfing in France will also suffer from the catastrophe.”

De Volder lives in Lacanau and he says he can’t see any oil in the water. “At the beginning of January, when it all started coming ashore, you could smell it badly. Now that it’s been cleaned, you have look closer to see the oil pellets on the beach here, but you can still see them — despite what the media says on TV.”

Petra Holtschneider, who recently joined the ASR Europe staff, worked for two years at the Bayonne Chamber Of Commerce promoting the action-sports industry. “The bigger companies probably won’t be affected since they sell their products all over Europe and not only on the Atlantic coastline,” she says. “The smaller companies — coastline surf shops, shapers, and surf schools, however — will be much more affected with fewer visitors and tourists.”

She says that the economic impact in the Anglet, Biarritz, Bayonne region has been minimal so far. “But people are worried for this summer, since tourism is the biggest sector of activity in the local economy,” she says.

Holtschneider reiterates that some beaches are open, while others remain closed. “Depending on the winds and the tides, you can see lots of oil when the tide goes down, which is immediately cleaned up by the city’s technical staff — which is one of the reasons they’re closing the beaches,” she says. “Apparently the biggest part of the oil spill is over now and we expect only minor {additional} pollution.”

According to Norbert Pollemans, O’Neill Europe’s strategic brand manager, “The latest news is that some beaches have opened again and there’s no more oil coming from the ship. At this moment it’s still hard to say how long the negative effects will last, but things are starting to look a bit more positive than a couple of weeks ago; actually we’re crossing our fingers that the problems will be over when summer starts.”

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But Jean-Louis Rodrigues, CEO of O’Neill’s Southern European headquarters in Biarritz says, “The reality is that we still have oil under the sand. The fact is, nobody in the government knows what will happen in few weeks.”

Rodrigues says the impacts on business have so far been minimal. “But we had to promise some customers that if the tourists aren’t coming, and the beaches are still closed, that we will take back the goods {we shipped them}. We have no other choice.” He says he had about ten accounts who have asked to decrease their orders by 30 percent.

O’Neill European wetsuit rep Yannick Keravec says the message from surf shops has been very simple: “We’ve been told, ‘All the brands who don’t play the game, will be penalizing the following season,'” he says. “But without the help of surf brands, they can’t do anything.”

“Even if the beaches are re-opened, it’s confirmed that this petrol is really toxic for people and flora,” he continues. “The damages have been made. How many people will go back to the beaches or go surfing without knowing the quality of the water and the sand?”

The ASP Faces Another European Crisis
Two years ago the ASP canceled the European leg of the WCT in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Last year it was a lack of surf that forced the WCT event in Portugal to be cancelled after the first few initial rounds. Now ASP President and CEO Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew and the rest of his ASP crew have to deal with the aftermath of the Prestige spill.

“It’s too early to speculate how the Prestige oil spill will impact the surf industry,” says Rabbit. “Being winter in Europe, only the hardcore surfers are on the beach, but I would think by May we should know what condition the beaches will be in for this summer. Obviously, surf shop owners are hoping that people can go surfing this summer.”

“We have spoken to all the WCT licensees from Europe, and they are all ‘go’ for their events,” continues Rabbit. “Again we have to monitor the situation, and discuss contingencies for alternative European venues in case the primary event site is experiencing problems. ASP has quite a few events going, including the biggest WQS leg in the world, World Longboard Tour events, men’s and women’s WCT events and junior pros, so there are many variables. Obviously, quite a few events — particularly the WQS leg — are linked to festivals or sponsored in part by local municipal councils, so mobility is not an option. These events will rely on a clean bill of health at the beach to proceed. Other events have the capacity to move around.”

Rabbit says he’s receiving information about the situation from a cross section of sources, including event promoters, pro surfers, industry representatives, the Surfrider Foundation, and ASP Europe. “Several reports have been encouraging, others border on the hysterical,” says Rabbit. “Nobody has all the answers. We’ve also commissioned an independent survey of the current situation, the clean-up operation, and projections as to what might occur as the seasons, winds, and currents shift. The latest report is that weeks of stormy winter seas have broken up the larger slick, and that since it has calmed down hundreds of boats have been deployed to drain oil from the ocean’s surface, while beach clean-ups are an ongoing process. It’s a huge project and much depends on whether the leaking hull of the Prestige can be sealed, as well as the daily variables of wind, swell and current. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

A Call To Arms
The spill has left many in the surf industry feeling helpless, but it has energized others to get involved and make a difference.

“The surf industry, through our individuals and companies, must step up and do whatever is necessary,” says Quiksilver’s Hodge. “Collectively, through our industry association EuroSIMA, we should be able to exert certain pressures on the authorities to ensure the ocean and the beaches are safe to use. More importantly, we must use every ounce of our influence to ensure the governments — through stricter regulations on the transport of toxic-oil waste and oil in general — do not allow this to happen again.”

“This disaster will negatively impact the surf industry and the sport of surfing,” says Billabong U.S.A President Paul Naude. “We need to get involved as a global industry to raise awareness as to the impact this type of incident will have on entire industries and communities.”

Reef’s Aguerre says the industry needs to start funding militant, more in-your-face organizations. “We need somebody to actually do something to protect us from similar events happening in the U.S.A.,” he says. “It seems that only organizations that are ‘in your face’ get attention and eventual government action. Martin Luther King did not get the Civil Rights legislation passed by congress by lobbying law makers, he did it by getting in the streets of Montgomery and all over the country.”

The biggest problem for the surfers remains the lack of information, says De Volder. “No one is able to tell us how toxic the fuel is,” he says. “In spite of the banning of surfing, some guys go surfing and come home with oil on their hands, boards, and wetsuits. But we have no idea how dangerous it really is.”

TransWorld SURF Business will update this story as it develops.