Shetland News: 40 Years of Environmental Monitoring

SHETLAND’s environment is one of the most understood and best monitored ecologies in the whole of the UK thanks to a unique cooperation between the oil industry, the local authority and the academic world.

The Sullom Voe Terminal Environmental Advisory Group, or SOTEAG, celebrated its 40th anniversary in February last year, but it is only now, one year later, that the group has managed to lay on a series of events to mark the occasion.

SOTEAG was founded to carry out wide-ranging environmental baseline surveys in order to measure environmental damage, and recovery, in case of an oil spill.

The first and only major oil pollution at Sullom Voe Terminal, when the Esso Bernicia spilled almost 1,200 tonnes of oil into Yell Sound on 30 December 1978, helped to focus minds and reinforced the value of such an undertaking.

Speaking ahead of Thursday’s events, SOTEAG chairman Dave Paterson said the organisation was unique in its set-up as being independent of the oil industry and, in addition, is today seen as a blueprint for other regions, such as the Falkland Islands, in preparing to accommodate the oil industry.

The biology professor from St Andrews University said that the purpose of SOTEAG’s academic work was two-fold.

SOTEAG chairman David Paterson outside Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo: St Andrews University

SOTEAG chairman David Paterson outside Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo: St Andrews University“We measure the baseline for different ecological targets, and development that info year on year,” he said.

“If there were to be another oil spill it allows you to assess at what point the system might have recovered from that. Without that baseline data you wouldn’t really know that.

“While we are hopeful that there will be no major incident, life isn’t like that.

“Sometimes these incidences do occur, and the work of SOTEAG would give the baseline against which to measure that major incident.

“In the meantime the data that comes in also helps to assure that the operation of the plant does not have a detrimental impact on the pristine environment.”

The baseline work, now spanning over four decades, ranges from macrobenthic seabed studies and rocky shore community structure to the changes in seabird populations.

Best known for this SOTEAG baseline work is Sumburgh Head based ecologist Martin Heubeck who has for the last 40 years monitored local seabird populations from kittiwakes and shags to guillemots and eider ducks.

Heubeck, who is retiring this spring, is currently handing over the reins to new seabird monitor Will Miles who has been shadowing Heubeck for the last year.

Paying tribute to Heubeck’s “incredible achievement” professor Paterson said: “His position as an independent analyst employed essentially through the oil companies, although he actually works for Aberdeen University, is quite unique.

“The level of dedication is unrivalled. Martin has developed such a wealth of information and a lot of that information is difficult to write down. It is about practicality, about when you go where with the wind blowing from certain directions, so we have been able to have Martin’s replacement working alongside him for nearly a year.”

To mark SOTEAG’s 40th anniversary, (or shall we say 41st?), the group had organised talks by Welsh wildlife presenter Iolo Williams to different audiences during Thursday. This unfortunately had to be cancelled due to weather related travel disruptions.

A reception at the Shetland Museum and Archives on Thursday evening will however go ahead.