The number of oil spills observed this spring in the Finnish sea areas has been alarmingly high. In the last two weeks of April, no less than nine oil spills, confirmed by surveillance flights, were observed. Until those weeks, the number of spills observed in 2008 had amounted to 18. Last year, too, many oil spills were observed in April-May. These illegal oil spills are particularly alarming right now. The bird migration season is going on and birds risk to get contaminated with oil.
The number of possible oil spills detected in the satellite images provided by the European Maritime Safety Agency was especially high in the last days of April. On 29 April there were no less than 12 possible oil spills, and next day, 30 April, there were still eight of them in the images. This is considerably more than usual. In 2007, the average number possible oil spills in a satellite image was 0.52. The sizes of the suspected spills were, however, small. Two of the possible spills detected on 28 April were controlled by the staff of the Kotka Coast Guard Station, and it turned out that the observed substance was not mineral oil. Several hours after the reception of the satellite image on 30 May, the Dornier surveillance plane checked the suspected oil spills, but at this stage there was oil only in one of the places.
Earlier in April, several other illegal oil spills from ships were observed in the EMSA satellite images or by surveillance flights : in the sea areas around the Hanko Peninsula, near Kirkkonummi, and near Kokkola. In three cases the slick was more than 15 km long. On 27 April, a helicopter from the Coastguard checked a slick off the Porkkala Peninsula and found that it was oil. The quantity of oil was estimated to be so large that oil spill response vessels from Estonia and Finland were sent to the area. However, when they reached the site, the major part of the oil had evaporated and the rest had spread into a larger area. Only a thin layer was left, and the oil could not be collected.
Oil spills are particularly noxious during certain seasons. Right now, in spring, migration birds stop to rest in certain areas, and if the oil slick reaches such a site, a large number of birds can be contaminated. Another critical period is the time when the young birds are swimming in the sea, and the third one is the autumn migration period. If many oil spills occur in these seasons, the consequences may be fatal. According to Swedish research results, the populations of common scoter have collapsed, and one of the main reasons is assumed to be the oil spills from ships.
Control can reduce the number of oil spills
According to a recommendation given by the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM), each of the coastal countries around the Baltic Sea should control the most heavily used fairways by flight surveillance at least twice a week. The Finnish Border Guard has in addition to its border control functions undertaken to carry out environmental surveillance flights using its Dornier surveillance aircraft. The Finnish Environment Institute has furnished the planes with devices for environmental surveillance. The devices are now ten years old and they are currently being replaced by new ones. The equipment has made it possible to control the oil spills efficiently. Using the side-looking airborne radar it is possible to monitor a zone of 20 nautical miles on both sides of the flight route. In addition to the airplanes, the helicopters of the Border Guard control the oil spills in connection to their other activities. There are no special devices for environmental surveillance aboard the helicopters, but they can more easily take a sample of an oil slick if a laboratory analysis is needed.
The surveillance airplanes are of crucial importance for the oil spill control. The satellite images of EMSA are very useful but they cannot replace the surveillance flights. A slick detected in a satellite image is only a suspected oil spill. To make sure that it really is an oil slick, it must be controlled on the site.
Ships caught in the act must pay an oil spill fee imposed by the Border Guard. Surveillance airplanes and helicopters are essential when the evidence material is collected.
To keep the number of spills down, the flight surveillance must be both efficient and visible. At present, 500-600 hours of surveillance flights are annually carried out in Finland. The annual number of flight hours in Sweden is 2000-3500 and in Estonia 200-450. More efficient flight control in the northern part of the Baltic Sea has been a major priority in the last few years. Sweden is about to take into use modern equipment in all its three surveillance airplanes, and Estonia has since the beginning of this year used new equipment for its environmental surveillance flights.
Finland, Sweden and Estonia exchange information about their surveillance flights, in order to make the surveillance of the most heavily used fairways as efficient as possible. Moreover, the countries around the Baltic Sea organize regularly joint control operations. In April, Finland participated in a ten days long campaign organized by Denmark.