Frontline World


Spain, THE LAWLESS SEA, January 2004



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story below, including responses from the reporter.

Anonymous - New York, New York
I am a classification surveyor who previously worked with ABS and is now employed by one of ABS's major competitors.

I will tell you this incident is a total failure of the Owners' responsibility to properly maintain the vessel and notify the society in the event of damages, repairs, etc.

In fact, ABS should have been notified of the repairs (for consultation and approval) of welders supplied onboard and for what purpose, areas to be repaired, equipment used, welding consumables, steel material, etc.

In addition to classification, from July 1998, ESP tanker vessels now have ISM (International Safety Management) that is to ensure vessels are maintained properly by crew, supplied material and resources by Owners, damages reported to class and flag state, etc. Obviously there was a total failure here.

The Owners are the vessels first line of action as it relates to pro-active action for maintenance and repair the vessel, informing class, port state officials, etc.

The vessel should never have been loaded with cargo and the vessel master having "OVER-RIDING AUTHORITY" of the vessel at sea could have prevented this incident. The Master is the Owners' representative onboard and the terminated Master or Master who loaded the vessel could have attempted to notify the port officials, ABS or vessel flag state, if [the] Owners ignored [a] request of assistance from shore.

Jeremy Rice - Marina del Rey, California
I am responding to the Anonymous former ABS employee. Like most professionals he believes in the rules of the profession he works in. In his case, the rules that govern shipping are antiquated. In a hypothetical world of shipping rules which make sense, a company such as ABS would not be off the hook. They would be charged with double checking the company. Their certification would be meaningful. The ship's owners would not be allowed to do anything which ABS didn't consult about. In other words, the antiquated role that ABS plays is one that helps wash the hands of the ship owners and that should be illegal.

Leonard Witt - Marietta, Georgia
I am into weblogging and I wonder what would happen if citizen bloggers did all they could to end the obscurity that Mark Schapiro mentions...What if environmentally oriented bloggers worldwide decided to find ways to end the obscurity. Documents could be posted ala "The Smoking Gun". Each new ship registered around the world is posted. Each spill is noted. Each responsible owner's name and affairs put on the site. Room is made for interviews with crew and captains. International companies that profit from using shabby ships get exposed. Think dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of global citizens as watchdogs... My thoughts are fleshed out at and specifically at

Reporter Mark Schapiro responds:
Your message raises a critical point: The current structure of the maritime system offer shipowners the possibility of operating behind a fog of corporate fronts and hidden financial interests. Thus, when an accident occurs, it is extremely difficult to clearly identify the responsible party or parties. This is also a reflection of the complex international nature of the maritime business, but in fact having the ability to shine the light on abusers of the system could go a long way toward clearing up some of the more flagrant abuses of the system. Your idea of a steady web-log is an inspired one -- though I would caution you as to how difficult it may be to actually find the abundance of information that's necessary. One place to start is an interesting and very useful Web site, -which provides a rendering of who, at least on paper, is the owner and manager of most every ship at well as its schedule of recent inspections. But the fact is that it is the certainty of shining the spotlight on those responsible for a ship's condition -- and the certainty of being forced to pay for damages caused -- that would go a long way toward reducing accidents, at least those linked to the condition of a ship.

Brenda Du Faur - New Orleans, Louisiana
I mean, what is there to say? Atrocious. No excuse. The American company that was supposed to inspect the ship not taking responsibility is too typical. We have a planet and a world to protect of animals, people, and life. It is so astounding that there aren't safeguards in place that make it impossible for horrible others to ruin parts of the world and habitat because they are in lowness... it is astounding that bad ships can be let to sale...the whole soul of humanity can be twisted when you have money higher than the true's hard to even give words to because it is so simple what should be done and so profoundly unspeakably horrible that all these types of disasters are allowed to occur as if it is just a casual thing to pollute the world in unspeakable and vile ways... as well as destroy the sacredness of animal life and the landscape of our very being...

N. Marquez - Anytown, USA
Thank you Frontline for bringing these issues to the fore front. I have to say it is sad that money is more important than the richness and diversity of the amazing planet we ALL inhabit.

I wish people would begin to see the true wealth our planet holds for us, instead of measuring their wealth against the [al]mighty dollar.

For the people of Spain and all of those that have suffered horrible environmental blunders, know that some of us are working to better our world.

Anonymous - Wailuki, Hawaii
While this story is enlightening, it continues a global neglect of ocean areas. The re-flagging of ships has been a political way of continuing "corporate business as usual." The same has been done with purse seiners to make canned tuna available to consumers.

The world market is now global with impacts far reaching. As a biologist, I have talked with students who live in our island State and they are tired of cleaning up messes that they are not responsible for. (I remember these same thoughts when I was growing up in the 1960s.) They realize the use of plastics throughout the world have much greater impacts in areas where these plastics were never used. From birds and other marine organisms such as turtles, marine mammals and fishes, plastics are having a devastating effect on natural populations.

Our environmental awareness has gotten much more complicated than what most people want to hear about. The cost of our disposable society and cheap fuel, water, and clean environment comes at an ecological cost.

Our biggest problem is how we give economic value to appreciated land and business values while neglecting the cost to restore sustainable environmental conditions. Corporate businesses often have the choice of doing what is right but often will try to lobby for tax write-offs.

Thanks for sharing the many stories that people need to hear.

C. Weiss - Youngstown, Ohio
The corporate interests need to be held responsible. During a study abroad program in Spain last year, my daughter had the opportunity to volunteer at the cleanup site. The devastation to the local people as well as the smell brought tears to her eyes.

"A Ship Captain" - Reno, Nevada
I recall that the Prestige was denied entry into various Spanish ports and also through the Straits of Gibraltar. I understand the concerns involved, however if the vessel had been allowed to enter port and the spill contained, the overall damage would have been much less than the world's largest spill to date. This fact was left out of your program. The refusal to the vessel to enter a safe harbor does not detract from the seriousness of the situation or nor of the need for reform. The current situation with flags of convenience is a result of the tax laws of the countries where the owners reside. You only told half the story.

FRONTLINE/World responds:
Indeed, there is much controversy in Spain over how the Prestige was handled when it started listing and leaking oil four miles offshore. You are correct: The captain of the vessel, Apostolo Mangouras, requested that the ship be brought into a nearby harbor, where he hoped the growing spill could be contained and perhaps oil drained off the ship. We did mention this in our broadcast story.

However, our central question in producing "The Lawless Sea" was this: What are the forces within the maritime system that permit a troubled vessel like the Prestige to hit the open seas with a cargo of highly toxic oil in the first place?

Markeeda and Imani - Kansas City, Missouri
My 5 year-old daughter, Imani, and I watched this story. She thought it was very interesting. We think the Prestige was a horrible injustice and all those involved should pay for it. The major countries that are involved with international trade over the waters need to set up laws of prevention, ASAP. Excellent story.

Anonymous - Beverly Hills, California
The World Court should be given the authority to enforce laws prohibiting shipping companies from hiding their liabilities behind flags of convenience and the nations that provide those methods of eluding ownership should be held liable as well.