`WE didn't ask for the Braer to be wrecked here," says George Black, one of the crofters who farm the fertile land in the southernmost part of Shetland. He adds philosophically: "All kinds of things have been thrown at Shetlanders over the centuries, but we always survive."
Wind seems to be what is chiefly thrown at Shetlanders: January saw 21 days of winds continuously at gale force. These winds made it impossible for experts to do much more than look on after an oil tanker ran aground Jan. 5. The American-owned, Liberian-registered tanker Braer bottomed close to the shore at Garth's Ness near the foot of this 70-mile- long group of islands - the most northerly land in Britain. The winds and gigantic waves broke up the Braer, dispersed the oil out to sea and up the coastli ne, and sprayed it over the land.
Some 85,000 tonnes of light crude oil, en route from Norway to Quebec, spilled, with an unspecific amount of bunker oil.
A spill of light crude was an unfamiliar problem: The resulting contamination of farmland, in particular, is unusual if not unprecedented. How to cope with this livelihood-threatening development, when sheep and cattle have to be kept off grass and vegetables are condemned for human consumption, is challenging a welter of local and government departments and officials, the claims office of the Norwegian insurers for the tanker, and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund set up at Lerwick, Shet land's capital. No one believes that the complex maze of enquiry, damage assessment, and compensation through which affected Shetlanders are now obliged to walk is going to be quickly navigated.
Crofters aren't the only ones who have been thrown into the ensuing maelstrom of concern about long-term effects. Two other important industries on Shetland, fishing and salmon farming, are also disrupted. Oil has tainted about 20 percent of the salmon farming on Shetland. The stock now almost ready for marketing will be destroyed. Some salmon farmers, wanting a clean slate, are also calling for the slaughter of younger stock. Nobody knows whether these younger salmon may grow out of the toxicity and bec ome salable in due time.
Also, nobody is willing to say what method should be used to dispose of the slaughtered fish. The Shetland Islands Council is impatiently waiting for the Scottish Office of the British government to make such decisions, but the Scottish Office seems as reluctant to decide this as it has been to release results from scientific tests of slaughtered sheep in affected areas. Some Shetlanders accuse the government of dragging its feet; others are more tolerant, acknowledging the bureaucratic and scientific co mplexities involved.
The tourist industry, though bringing less money to Shetland than fishing and fish-farming, also fears consequences from the Braer disaster, because it depends largely on the attraction of the islands' pristine wildness. It is seeking funds to launch an image-improving advertising campaign.
The islanders find themselves caught between the need to downplay the disaster (so that people will not be put off buying salmon or coming here to see the spectacular bird population during the breeding season) and the need to emphasize just how badly they have been affected by the spill (in order to make sure compensation is adequate.)
John Goodlad, Secretary of the Shetland Fishermen's Association, is outspoken on the need to "keep things in proportion."
"This [claim of] `ecological disaster,' this `wildlife devastation,' is absolute rubbish," he says. "It's not a disaster. It would have been ... if one of the crew of the Braer had lost his life. Nobody's lost their lives."
But Mr. Goodlad believes that in the fishing and fish-farming industries, "now we are beginning to see the real effect. Jobs are on the line. The real problem is real people. Not furry animals." He says this because he feels strongly that journalists, who descended in vast numbers along with officials and experts on Shetland, have exaggerated the effect of the spill on wildlife.
So far scientists have collected 1,500 dead birds. Future monitoring, however, may indicate longer-term effects on bird life and on the life of the ocean bed.
"After the Exxon Valdez [spill] there were 600,000 birds killed," Goodlad says. He's "very sad" about the Shetland birds, but notes that "hundreds of thousands of birds breed in Shetland, and no single species of bird is in any danger of extinction or of having its numbers reduced drastically."
Goodlad also says the 300-square-mile fishing-exclusion zone around the southern part of the islands established after the spill "affects 10 percent of the whitefish trawling ground and about 20 percent of the shellfish ground. For everyone else it is business as usual."
Fisherman David Smith believes that fishing is "not going to be affected so badly" as crofting and salmon-farming. "We hardly ever fish within the exclusion zone," he says. The oil spill is not high on the fishing industry's agenda of problems.
Retired crofter Derek Black, whose son now works his farm, is not so optimistic about crofting in the affected part of Shetland. His veterinarian, Edwin Moar, "reckons that the worst affected land can have no stock on it until at the earliest June or July." "We honestly don't know what we're going to do" with their sheep, Mr. Black says. These animals are confined to a very small area unaffected by the oil and are being given special feed paid for by the Shetland Islands Council, but when their numbers more than double during the spring lambing time, overcrowding seem certain. "There's a very strong feeling to sell the lot," he says. The family has considered selling completely and moving out. Black's rich humor and zest for life, however, belie such a pessimistic scenario.
"Where we would go, I don't know," he says, adding, "At the moment, life is going on as near to normal as it can. The bottom line is how the local population is going to cope. I would think you need to come back in six month's time to see."
Frankly, nothing about the apparent aftermath of the Braer disaster would stop me from doing that. These beautiful islands are, in spite of this untoward occurrence, wild and attractive and full of both human and bird life, even at the southern point. I even watched a seal bobbing around what little of the wreck now remains above the blue waves.
This creature did not show signs of any distress. A large wave reared up and seemed to swamp it. After a moment's disappearance, there it was again, bobbing happily. It seemed an image of the kind of survival Shetlanders also specialize in.