The roll-on, roll-off freighter, the Finnbirch was on its way to Aarhus in Denmark from Helsinki last Wednesday when crew radioed for help saying the ship was taking on water in high seas.

The 8,500 tonne ship was carrying around 250 tonnes of heavy oil and a further 10 tonnes of machine oil when it sank and while all but one of the crew were rescued, the bad weather hindered an assessment of the potential environmental damage at the time of the accident.

How much oil escapes from the ship will be determined by how badly damaged it was when it sunk and an assessment has so far been impossible.

Subsequent air reconnaissance by both the German and Finnish coast guard have identified an oil slick up to ten kilometres long and 400m wide trailing from the wreck.

The ship went down 20km off the coast of Oland Island, a small landmass off the south eastern coast of Sweden which provides a haven for birdlife and flora. The island is of such importance for biodiversity that the Swedish Government has applied to have it listed as an World Heritage Site.

The Swedish coast guard has issued a statement saying that thanks to winds blowing away from the island, the risk of the oil slick reaching the island and causing an environmental catastrophe look very small.

The Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), an environmental protection agency set up by states with a Baltic coastline to allow the pooling of resources in case of accidents such as this one, has offered its assistance to Sweden though so far efforts to contain the spill and the subsequent clean-up have been thwarted by high seas.

Sam Bond

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