The short-term consequences of the Prestige oil tanker disaster have already been devastating for the fishing community in the regions of Spain affected by the oil spill. Unfortunately the long-term ramifications could be equally serious.

It will probably be three or four years down the line before it is known whether hydrocarbon chemicals from the spill are getting into the food chain and contaminating fish stocks.

Scientists at RSSL who analysed salmon stocks off the Shetland coast following the Braer disaster, believe that this recent incident differs significantly from Braer and ultimately could prove more damaging for the Spanish fishing industry. Dr Brian Baigrie heads the taints and off-flavours laboratory at RSSL, which regularly analyses all kinds of foods for environmental contaminants. Some of these contaminants merely cause the food to taste bad, whereas others are linked to serious illness and disease. However, the common factor is that all are present at extremely low concentrations and require highly sophisticated analysis to determine and quantify their presence.

Dr Baigire explains, "The oil spill in the Shetlands was of a relatively low density oil that evaporated quite readily, helped by the violent storms that occurred after the spillage. In the event, there was no significant contamination of the salmon that was being farmed in the Shetlands. In this case, the crude oil is much heavier and less easily dispersed. If it were to break up into small droplets the fear is that fish might absorb it through their gills and accumulate it in this way. I would imagine that fish caught in this region will need to be tested for several years hence in order to be sure that there is no long-term incidence of contamination."