Places of refuge

The recent wrecking of the Prestige off the coast of Spain highlighted a problem which was all too familiar to specialists: accommodating ships in distress carrying hazardous substances. The Prestige suffered serious damage to her hull and was kept at sea for 6 days as there was no salvage plan to direct the vessel to a pre-established place of refuge. Consequently, the European Commission requested the early application of a directive which came into force in February 2004 stating that all member States must establish plans to accommodate vessels in distress in the waters of their jurisdiction and publish lists of ports of refuge.

At the time of writing, not all member States have published these lists, which constitute a very sensitive subject area for the coastal inhabitants of the country. Some countries have chosen to establish decision-making methodologies and to refer to places rather than ports of refuge. Others are still undecided as to the question of whether the places of refuge, dictated by the maritime authorities, should only be known to these authorities or should become public knowledge.


This issue is all the more sensitive when it comes to the question of the legal liability of the national authorities if the vessel towed to a place of refuge causes serious damage to the environment in this place or on the way there.

Added to this is the currently unresolved issue of levels and methods of compensation for those affected by any resulting damaged.

Fishing harbour