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Canary Islands Threatened by Oil Prospecting Plans

Yellow gorgonia coral  and red sea fan in the Canary Islands.  © Oceana/Carlos Minguell

The Canary Islands are in the oil industry’s crosshairs, and that spells danger for the area’s marine habitats and wildlife.

In a new report, Oceana has denounced oil prospecting plans in the Canary Islands, highlighting the dangerous impact of these activities on cold-water coral reefs, deep sponge fields, hydrothermal vents, and nearly 100 protected species.

Spanish oil company Repsol is planning to prospect in the Canary Islands Channel, located off the northwest coast of Africa. The channel contains gas-based habitats that are protected under the Habitats Directive. These habitats support coral and sponge communities that would be destroyed by oil prospecting activity.

A total of 25 protected areas and 82 endangered species would be threatened by Repsol’s prospecting activities. These include sea turtles, short finned pilot whales, angel sharks, bottlenose dolphins, and a variety of fish.

The International Maritime Organization has declared the Canary Islands a Particularly Sensitive Area for its biological wealth and its economic dependence. This status affords the islands’ strict protection in terms of waste and pollution.

The Canary Islands is an archipelago supported by fishing and tourism. Both of these industries rely on the islands’ high biodiversity—more than 600 species and 350 communities and habitats. Oil prospecting would interfere with fishing and tourism, and reduce the biodiversity of the area.

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Outrage Against Drilling in Canary Islands

A popular tourist beach in the Canary Islands that would be affected by drilling. © Lauren Linzer

Editor's note: This is a guest contribution by Oceana supporter Lauren Linzer, who lives on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, which are just off the west coast of Africa. 

Along with many other nations around the world, Spain has been desperately searching for solutions to relieve the increasing financial woes the country is facing. 

With a significant portion of its oil supply being imported and oil prices skyrocketing, attention to cutting down on this lofty expense has turned toward a tempting opportunity to drill for oil offshore in their own territory. 

The large Spanish petrol firm, REPSOL, has declared an interest in surveying underwater land dangerously close to the Spanish Canary Islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. This would, in theory, cut down significantly on spending for the struggling country, providing a desperately needed financial boost.

But are the grave ecological repercussions worth the investment?  There is much debate around the world about this controversial subject; but on the island of Lanzarote, it is clear that this will not be a welcome move.

Last week, protesters from around the island gathered in the capital city of Arrecife to demonstrate their opposition to the exploration for underwater oil.  With their faces painted black and picket signs in hand, an estimated 22,000 people (almost one fifth of the island’s population) walked from one side of the city to the other, chanting passionately and marching to the beat of drums that lead the pack.  Late into the night, locals of all ages and occupations joined together to express their dire concerns. 

Besides the massive eyesore that the site of the drilling will introduce off the east coast, the ripple effects to islanders will have a devastating impact.  The most obvious industry that will take a serious hit will be tourism, which the island depends on heavily.  Most of the large touristic destinations are on the eastern shore due to the year-round excellent weather and plethora of picturesque beaches.  But with the introduction of REPSOL’s towers a mere 23 kilometers (14 miles) from the island’s most populated beaches, the natural purity and ambient tranquility that draws so many European travelers will be a thing of the past. 


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Oceana Proposes a Canary Islands MPA

Last week, in a culmination of several years of work, our European colleagues presented a proposal to protect 15% of the marine area around Spain’s Canary Islands. If the proposal is accepted, it would multiply the current protected area by 100.

Here’s the back story: In 2009 the Oceana Ranger, our research catamaran, sailed to the Canaries, which are off the coast of Morocco. Over the course of two months, the crew documented the seamounts and seabeds of the archipelago, and found a dozen species never before seen in the area, and filmed many rare species, including three-foot-tall glass sponges, Venus fly-trap anemones and lollipop sponges. (For more on the Canaries see this piece from our magazine last winter.)

The protected area would harbor many other threatened species in the area, such as sea turtles, deep-sea sharks, seahorses, the giant grouper, blue and right whales and the white gorgonian.


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