Ahead of the Braer shipping disaster anniversary next month, John MacDonald casts an eye across the maritime safety provision set in place for Scotland’s seas. He argues that current arrangements are deficient, and that the German model offers the UK a good example to follow. 

Next month will mark 25 years since the Braer disaster. It was on 5 January 1993 when the MV Braer ran aground on the southern tip of Shetland. The Liberian tanker was carrying nearly 85,000 tons of Norwegian crude oil. The grounding occurred in weather conditions so bad that no salvage was possible. All of Braer’s oil was lost to the sea; the volume of the spill was more than twice that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Only the strong winds and high seas at the time prevented an even worse disaster. Much of the oil was broken up and dispersed more quickly than would have been the case had the accident happened during calmer weather. It was also fortunate that the incident occurred in winter and not during the seabird breeding season when Sumburgh Head would have been populated with tens of thousands of seabirds.

Nonetheless, the event was a tragedy for the Shetlands, one so serious that the UK government ordered an inquiry into how pollution from merchant shipping could be prevented. The enquiry was chaired by Lord Donaldson. His eventual report – the Donaldson Report (1994) – contained 103 recommendations for improving UK maritime safety.


One recommendation – and the focus of this article – was the implementation of emergency towing vessel (ETV) capacity around the UK. It is widely acknowledged that the rapid intervention of an ETV can prevent major pollution incidents, loss of life, and financial losses to shipping companies, manufacturers, and local communities.

In response to Donaldson’s recommendations, four government-funded ETVs were allocated for UK waters by the UK government (such a decision can only be made at the UK level: this is a reserved issue). Two of the four ETVS were allocated to Scotland: one covering the Western Isles, operating out of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis; the other covering the Northern Isles, operating out of Kirkwall in Orkney.

This arrangement didn’t last. As part of the austerity-driven spending cuts of 2010, the UK government announced – blatantly ignoring Donaldson’s recommendations – that it would cut funding for all four of the UK’s ETVs. After an outcry, this decision was briefly overturned for the two Scottish vessels, but UK ministers finally decided to cut funding for the Western Isles ETV. It stopped operating in March 2012.

Amidst great uncertainty  about what would happen once Westminster’s funding commitment to the Northern Isles tug expired, the UK government announced – under pressure from Scottish parliamentarians, community groups, industry bodies, and the Shetland Times – that funding for the Kirkwall-based Herakles would continue until September 2016, when the vessel would be withdrawn from service. At this point, the UK would be without a single government-funded ETV.

Under continuing pressure to save Scotland’s sole remaining ETV, the UK government decided last summer that it would prolong ETV operation from Orkney for a further five years. On 1 January 2017, the Ievoli Black took up its duties as a replacement for Herakles. The new vessel will now provide sole safety cover for Scotland’s extensive maritime space.

Despite continuing pressure from Scotland’s politicians, and also from within the maritime industry itself, the UK government continues to refuse to review the need for – at the very least – a second ETV to cover the Western Isles. Yet last year, we had a stark warning of Scotland’s vulnerability to maritime accidents, and a reminder of how poorly it is provisioned to deal with them.


At 06:52 on Monday 8 August 2016, the Marshall Islands registered 17,000-tonne drilling platform Transocean Winner ran aground on the Isle of Lewis in stormy conditions, whilst on tow from Norway to Malta to be scrapped. Encountering severe weather west of the Hebrides, the tugboat towing the platform had called for assistance at approximately 18.15 on the Sunday evening. The Kirkwall-based Herakles responded within a quarter of an hour of the call.

Whether its presence would have made a difference is a moot point. Herakles’ 18-hour journey from Orkney meant it didn’t arrive at the scene until 12.30pm the next day – far too late to stop the Transocean Winner grounding, rupturing two of its fuel tanks, and spilling around 53,000 litres of diesel into the sea. The authorities declared – with a familiar flippancy – that most of the pollution ‘dispersed harmlessly’ into the sea.

The Transocean Winner ahead of  being refloated in Dalmore Bay. © Maritime & Coastguard Agency.

The damage suffered by the platform when it grounded meant it was too hazardous to attempt a second tow. Instead, when weather conditions improved, it was lifted onto the back of the 60,000-tonne heavy-lifting vessel Hawk, and transported to Turkey.

The subsequent report on the incident by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch made a variety of recommendations. Yet there was no recommendation relating to the fact that it had taken Scotland’s only ETV around 18 hours to reach the emergency scene.


Such a tardy response would not happen in countries whose governments take maritime safety more seriously. In investigating this issue last year, I contacted the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, seeking information on how Germany approaches the issue of emergency towing. The response to my query by a senior figure from within the Ministry was swift – and striking.

Despite the fact that Germany’s sea area and coast-length are very much smaller than Scotland’s (see the table below), the German government actually operates eight ETVs: four government-owned vessels; and another four that it charters from industry.

NationCoastline length (km)Sea area (Square km)Number of ETVs
3 in North Sea
5 in Baltic Sea
The number of ETVs in relation to coastline length and sea area in Germany and Scotland.
Scotland's coastline & sea area: http://www.gov.scot/Topics/marine/science/atlas
Germany’s coastline: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2060.html
Germany’s sea area: http://www.unesco-ioc-marinesp.be/msp_practice/germany_north_baltic_seas
Information on German ETV fleet and annual government expenditure: personal communication with German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.

The size of Germany’s ETV fleet is dictated by a strict prescription, brought into effect in 2002: any emergency incident in German coastal waters must be responded to within a maximum of two hours.

If this commitment stands out when compared to the UK arrangement, so too is the financial commitment the German government makes on this front. It spends around €25 million each year – and that’s just for the four ETVs it charters from industry. For the four government-owned ETVs, my contact at the Ministry would not provide a overall annual running cost.

The German emergency towing vessel Baltic sails into Warnemünde port (2010). Image: Robert Hübbe [Wikimedia]

The difference between how the UK and German governments approach ETV provision is striking. Germany operates 8 ETVs; just four of them cost €25 million per year to run. On the other hand, the UK government has had to be pressured extensively to support just one single ETV at a cost (based on the UK government’s own estimations) of between £2 – 3 million per year. When we look at UK arrangements within the context of the German model, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the UK government takes a worryingly flippant approach to the safety of shipping crews, and the ecological integrity of the nation’s waters, coastline, and wildlife.


There are clearly a number of factors which dictate Germany’s ETV provision. One key factor is the need for prompt incident response. When explaining the rationales for the German model, my contact at the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure told me explicitly: ‘All tugs are able to reach the important routes within two hours.’

The 18 hours it took the Herakles to respond to the Transocean Winner accident last year suggests that Scotland’s sea patrol area is far too big to be covered by a single ETV.

By contrast, the UK government appears to place no such emphasis on promptness. We know that it takes the Orkney-based ETV much longer than two hours to reach incidents along Scotland’s long coastline. The 18 hours it took Herakles to respond to the Transocean Winner accident last year suggests that Scotland’s sea patrol area is far too big to be covered by a single ETV. It might also be noted that if Herakles had already been engaged in an operation at the time the emergency call came from the Transocean Winner’s tug, it would not have been able to respond at all.


If the recommendations raised by the post-Braer Donaldson Report have ultimately been ignored by the UK government, it is also worth noting that the maritime conditions that Donaldson based his recommendations on have changed. The years since 1994 have witnessed a combination of increased maritime activity in the seas around Scotland, and more extreme sea and weather conditions as a consequence of climate change. The conditions in Scotland’s sea-space are more challenging than when Lord Donaldson conducted his inquiry.

The recent debates over ETV provision have coincided with new patterns of maritime activity in the seas around Scotland, and to its north and north-west, as a result of the most recently opened Norwegian and Russian oil and gas fields, and prospective new mining in Greenland. Shetland Isles Council has recently observed that ‘our coastline is now far busier and the seas around Shetland are more congested…particularly to the west of the islands’. This observation may allude, at least in part, to the onset of gas production operations in the Laggan-Tormore fields to the west of Shetland. It is worth noting that the infrastructure laid down in these fields will facilitate access to other reserves previously deemed inaccessible. This may facilitate a further expansion of activity in these waters.

Scotland’s seas are subject to extreme conditions. Climate change may have exacerbated the intensity and frequency of bad weather. © Mike Pennington [CC-by-sa/2.0]

Any such expansion will coincide with a likely upturn in other maritime industrial activities around Scotland. The North Sea is already the most densely used maritime and coastal space in Europe. It also holds the highest potential in Europe for the development of offshore wind energy. As development efforts unfold, this may make for an even busier North Sea.

New developments in the energy sphere will coincide with the decommissioning of older oil and gas facilities. Indeed, if the Transocean Winner incident was a too-close-for-comfort warning, it is worth pointing out that the risk of such incidents recurring in the coming years must surely be significant. Douglas-Westwood’s North Sea Decommissioning Market Forecast 2016-2040 forecasts that between 2016 and 2040, up to $82 billion may be spent on decommissioning activity in Denmark, Germany, Norway and the UK. Over the next 35 years or so, about 470 platforms will be removed from the North Sea alone; 109 platforms are set to go between now and 2025. One thing is certain: the Transocean Winner certainly won’t be the last ageing platform to be towed past Scotland on its way to decommissioning.


There is a compelling case for a stronger approach. This has been recognised at the very heart of UK government. In 2015, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic, reviewing the UK’s Arctic approach and its involvement in an evolving northern agenda, criticised the inadequacy of maritime accident response in the UK’s northern waters, urging that the UK government address deficiencies as a matter of priority.

One part of this commitment must surely entail re-examining ETV provision for Scotland. The cost of maintaining an ETV is hardly expensive in government budgetary terms. As we have seen, the German government is prepared to pay what is necessary to maintain a model predicated upon 2-hour-incident-response. The money it is prepared to spend in maintaining this model – to safeguard a sea area and coastline far smaller than Scotland’s – far exceeds what the UK government is willing to pay.

The German government is prepared to pay what is necessary to maintain a model predicated upon 2-hour-incident-response. The money it is prepared to spend in maintaining this model – to safeguard a sea area and coastline far smaller than Scotland’s – far exceeds what the UK government is willing to pay. 

Less than twenty-five years after the MV Braer ran aground off Shetland, memories are still fresh in Scotland of the risks that maritime accidents pose to fragile marine environments. It is troubling that whilst the 1994 Donaldson Report urged a massive shakeup in the UK’s maritime safety provision, the transformation has been partial. Indeed, the ETV provision initially set in place, based upon Donaldson’s recommendations, has been rolled back. It’s incredible to think that having gone to the trouble of having a public inquiry on an issue as serious as protecting our seas and coastline from merchant shipping pollution, that successive UK governments since 2010 have seen fit to ignore one of the key recommendations of that inquiry.


Despite the huge importance of the marine environment to Scotland, a decision on Scotland’s ETV provision cannot be taken in Edinburgh. In fact, there is an intriguingly complex picture as far as legislating on Scotland’s marine environment is concerned. Under current constitutional arrangements, maritime transport issues – including shipping registration, manning and command, safety, pollution, and liability – are reserved to the UK government, along with the relevant provisions relating to navigation, salvage and wrecks, and security.

However, the UK government’s National Contingency Plan for Marine Pollution from Shipping and Offshore Installations notes that the Scottish government has ‘overall responsibility for the protection of the marine environment and the living resources that it supports in waters adjacent to Scotland’.  The Scottish government has devolved responsibility for shipping services which both begin and end in Scotland. It is also responsible for Scotland’s ports, harbours and ferry routes. Marine planning is devolved, marine licensing is mainly devolved; the Scottish parliament cannot change legislation in the former area.

With responsibility for the protection of the marine environment in waters ‘adjacent to Scotland’, Marine Scotland (the Scottish government agency responsible for the integrated management of Scotland’s seas) has significant responsibility. However, it operates within a framework in which key areas are controlled by the UK government. Since we are unlikely to see any shift in maritime powers to Scotland any time soon, it is clear that any action from Scotland on this issue must come in the form of civic, industry, and political pressure.

This coming January, it will be 25 years since the MV Braer ran aground on Shetland. The measures set in place after that disaster have been reduced in the intervening years, whilst at the same time Scotland’s seas have become busier and subject to more extreme weather. It is easy to see the risks. And looking elsewhere, it is easy to see how we might improve our approach.

UK government policy on ETV provision seems to be driven by concerns over costs. Two things might be said of this. First, looking to Germany shows us that other governments are quite willing to pay what it takes to set in place a responsible model. Second, even if it is expensive to protect our precious sea and coastal spaces, is it not a price worth paying?

John MacDonald is Editor of CABLE. Mail him at: editor@cablemagazine.scot  Find him on Twitter at: @1johnmacdonald 

Feature image: The Transocean Winner grounded at Dalmore, Isle of Lewis. August 2016. © Maritime & Coastguard Agency.