Spills and accidents

Status: No overall trend discernible with few or no concerns

(Baxter et al, 2011)

The Solway, like all marine areas, is at risk of accidental spills and marine accidents. Spills refers to the release of oil or chemicals into the marine environment. The Solway Firth has no offshore oil and gas activity and has no large industrialised areas within its boundaries, which limits the potential of large-scale spill events, however chemicals and oil may still pose a risk from vessels in the Firth.

Marine accidents include marine casualties or incidents where there has been no intent, this includes groundings, collisions, capsizing and sinking of vessels. Accidents are monitored to help ensure and improve safety.


Image; Boats on the Solway (Kirkcudbright). © Solway Firth Partnership. Photographer; Colin Tennant.

Spills and accidents


Responsibility for spills from shipping and offshore installations is reserved by the UK Government, meaning that in both Scotland and England the competent responding authority is the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) when spills threaten the UK or surrounding waters.

Roles of other organisations, such as Scotland specific organisations, are outlined in the UK National Contingency Plan (NCP) for marine pollution from shipping and offshore installations. This plan also recognises the importance of assessing the impacts of marine spills on internal waters (often bays and inlets are classed as internal waters for the purposes of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea baselines) and the need for cross-border co-operation; “[i]t is for each devolved administration to review and assess the threat to their internal waters and shoreline, to formulate the best method of response and to communicate with other administrations. There may be a requirement for mutual aid or co-operation” (Maritime and Coastguard Agency, 2017).

The Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea (ACOPS) is an environmental non-governmental organisation which conducts annual surveys of reported discharges attributed to vessels and offshore oil and gas installations operating in the UK pollution control zone on behalf of the MCA. The most recent data available from the ACOPS annual surveys is from 2017.

If there is an emergency at sea which threatens to cause, or actually causes, pollution to the UK, or UK waters, action must be taken by the MCA, which has a statutory responsibility to do so. In combination with historical information, the annual survey allows the MCA Counter Pollution and Response team to assess trends in the spills which have occurred. The MCA also holds Counter Pollution Stockpiles with counter pollution equipment, dispersant, aircrafts, and an emergency towing vessel strategically located around the UK. Locations and details can be explored here, however there are no UK marine counter pollution resources located within the Solway Firth.

More information on marine pollution incident response is available here.

Details of spills within the Solway Firth over the most recent 6 years of available reports (2012-2017) are available in the table below. Note there were no spills in the Solway in 2013.

Reference Date Location Category/
Litres spilled Source Notes
IS/298 16 May 2012 Whitehaven Marina Oil/
Not known Workboat Oil spills from containers onboard derelict boat when boat caught fire. Booms deployed in clean-up operation, boat remains removed and disposed of.
WS/081 20 March 2014 Cairnryan to Larne

Discharge location labelled as ‘North Channel’ but discharge was en-route so potentially began in Loch Ryan

500 Ro-Ro Ferry – European Highlander Believed to have discharged over the North Channel while en-route (Cairnryan to Larne). Seal failure on propeller shaft


WS/278 7 April 2014 Carsethorn Vegetable/
Palm Oil
Not known Not known Council issued a warning to dog owners
WS/279 20 April 2014 Port of Cairnryan Oil/
800 Ro-Ro Ferry – Stena Superfast VII Equipment failure during bunkering operation, Clean-up completed by Tier Two responder
IS/089 10 Aug 2014 Workington Harbour Oil/
800 Fishing vessel – New Venture Tank overflow, vessel heeled over at low tide, dispersed naturally
WS/519 4 Feb 2015 Kippford Marina Oil/
Not known Pleasure Craft Vessel sank, dispersed naturally
IS/287 22 June 2015 Silloth New Dock Oil/
150 Fishing vessel Bunkering Oil. Clean-up completed
IS/306 1 Dec 2015 Silloth New Dock Oil/
Not known Fishing vessel Bunkering Oil. Clean-up completed
IS/374 14 Feb 2016 Silloth Docks Oil/
40 Fishing vessel – Noordzee Clean-up completed, charged to the owners of the vessel
IS/376 16 Feb 2016 Port of Workington Oil/
30 Suction Dredger – Grete Fighter Naturally dispersed
WS/501 29 Sept 2016 Kirkcudbright Harbour Oil/
1 Fishing vessel Washed off deck after maintenance. Absorbent boom deployed. Clean-up completed
IS/453 18 June 2017 Maryport Harbour Oil/
Not known Fishing Vessel- St Tudwell (15 metre sunken ex fishing vessel) Source of a Diesel sheen. Vessel lifted and dismantled. Clean-up completed
WS/555 28 June 2017 Kippford Marina Oil/
Not known Pleasure Craft –Asabay Attempted refloat after vessel sank – diesel film observed trailing vessel
IS/513 20 Dec 2017 Port of Workington Oil/
2 Fishing Vessel – Mischeif Naturally dispersed

Table Data Source; Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea, 2013- 2017


Form the table above it is clear that in the Solway spills are almost exclusively diesel oil, while there were also single incidents of hydraulic, lubrication and vegetable oils between 2013 and 2017. The clean-up or dispersal of oil spills is important for the environment and also for marine operations, with spills potentially hindering other port or harbour operations. Wave action in UK seas often makes oil recovery difficult, however it can help quickly disperse the oil naturally. Fast dispersal is important in the Solway, as some estuarine features are sensitive to oil, such as salt meadows and saltmarsh (Natural England and NatureScot, 2010).

There have been no recent chemical spills in the Solway, and the likelihood of chemical spills is significantly reduced by several factors. The Solway has no oil or gas extractive activities, and is an estuary which has no large industrialised ports. Furthermore, as there is no thoroughfare for vessels, there is no rationale for vessels with chemical stocks to travel through the Firth. These aspects significantly reduce the likelihood of a chemical spill, although the Firth could still be impacted by a chemical spill beyond its limits. Exploring the ACOPS annual surveys illustrates the relatively limited spills which occur in the Solway (which forms part of the ‘Western Scotland’ and ‘Irish Sea’ areas) comparative to the UK continental shelf oil and gas installation spills. In 2017 the Irish Sea area had a total of 13 spills, the Western Scotland area experienced a total of 11 spills, whereas there were 295 oil releases from open sea UK oil and gas installations, and 201 chemical substance releases. Spills are inevitable while vessels travel across the marine area of the UK through accident, damage, or malfunctions.

Spills have the potential to contaminate water and harm species such as birds, however clean-up operations also have the potential to cause environmental harm. Dispersants are the main response method to oil spills in the UK, but can only be used subject to approval from a regulatory and licensing authority. In English waters the regulatory authority is the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). In Scottish waters Marine Scotland is the regulator responsible for approving dispersant use, except for operations related to offshore oil and gas, where oil spill dispersants are regulated by the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy. The use of other oil spill treatment products is also subject to approval, although equipment such as skimmers, booms, and sorbent mats may be used without approval.  Shallow water requests are considered on a case-by-case basis with advice from nature conservation, fisheries, and other agencies. More information on oil spills and dispersant use can be found in the UK National Contingency Plan (NCP). The MMOs Marine Pollution Contingency Plan is available here providing information regarding the MMOs role in spill incidents, and how to request to use oil spill treatment products in English waters. It also provides a useful flow chart to illustrate the request process for dispersant use in English waters. This plan also outlines that the Port of Workington has a standing approval (since 2019) from the MMO for the use of approved oil spill treatment products, subject to certain restrictions. There are currently no areas of standing approval for dispersant use in the Scottish Solway.


Oil Spill Contingency Plans for Ports and Harbours

Harbours and ports also have responsibility for spills when they take place within their jurisdiction. UK obligations under the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation 1990 are implemented through the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998 (as amended). Under these regulations certain UK harbours, ports, applicable operators of oil facilities are required to prepare an oil spill contingency plan and submit it to the MCA for approval (alternative plans are required for offshore installations). The MCA has guidance available in the form of ‘Contingency planning for marine pollution preparedness and response: guidelines for ports’. This document also, helpfully, outlines the responsibility for clean-up depending on the location of pollution. The responsibility for ensuring clean-up falls on Harbour Authorities, local authorities, owners, and the MCA depending on the location of pollution.
Oil Contingency Plans are often not available online. For example, the Port of Workington webpage on environmental policy outlines that an approved Oil Pollution Contingency Plan is in place, however does not provide a link to the plan.

Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners have a section of the website dedicated to their Oil Spill Contingency Plan, however the link is currently unavailable (March 2021).

Emergency Response Procedures for Dumfries and Galloway Council Harbours are provided in the Dumfries and Galloway Council Harbours Safety Management Guidance, available here. The document signposts the principal emergency procedures of the; Dumfries and Galloway Coastal Oil Pollution Contingency Plan; Individual Oil Spill Contingency Plans for Dumfries & Galloway Council Harbours; and the NCP. Furthermore, there was a Marine Emergency Plan published in 2017, copies of which are held in Kirkcudbright and Stranraer Harbour offices. Marine Scotland has collaborated with NatureScot to create useful spatial data layers which can be displayed in the National Marine Plan Interactive to help with oil spill contingency planning in Scotland, available here.


Future Trends

Spills in the Solway vary from year-to-year both in terms of number of spills and volume spilled. For example in 2013 there were no known spills within the Firth, whereas the following year (2014) there was over 1,600 litres of oil spilled within the Solway (this figure does not count the 20th March spill from the Ro-Ro ferry travelling from Cairnryan to Larne as the oil was believed to have discharged over the North Channel, and it is unknown if, and how much spilled in Loch Ryan).

In the near future it is likely that the Solway will continue to have a relatively limited number of overall spills per year, with yearly variations. There are currently no significant expansion plans in the Firth for operations which would increase the risk of spills. If new activities, or the expansion of some existing socio-economic activities occur in the future, for example through new wind farms, increased ferry crossings, cruises, increased vessel traffic, then spills become more likely. There has been no oil and gas activity in the Solway since 1995/96 when two wells were explored for potential reserves, however both wells were dry. There are large scale restrictions on the Firth (military and environmental) limiting the potential for oil and gas activity within the area. The plans for the Woodhouse Colliery sub-sea coking coal mine (see Energy, aggregates, subsea cables and pipelines) and the similar geology found in the Solway and in Morecambe bay indicate hydrocarbon potential in the Firth.


Spills and accidents


National standards for port safety are set out in the non-mandatory Port Marine Safety Code. As this code aims to enhance safety it helps reduce the risk of potential accidents. The code applies both to statutory harbour authorities and to other marine facilities which may not have statutory powers and duties.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is responsible for responding to maritime emergencies, which are undertaken by HM Coastguard. The Coastguard is responsible for establishing, maintaining, and operating effective civil search and rescue within in the UK Search and Rescue Region. This includes rescues at sea, and on the shore/cliffs around the UK up to the Mean High Water Spring (MHWS). Search and Rescue responsibilities on the landward side of the MHWS lie with the police. The UK has a comprehensive search and rescue service which includes those in trouble on the water. A Strategic Overview of Search and Rescue in the UK is available here.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) is a UK wide government agency. The MAIB has the authority to investigate all accidents in UK waters (or involving UK registered vessels out with UK waters) with powers conferred under The Merchant Shipping (Accident Reporting and Investigation) Regulations 2012. Investigations can be led by other countries with agreement if the accident was in UK waters involving a foreign flagged vessel, or involve a UK vessel in foreign waters.

Harbour/inland waterway authorities are the MCA and they have a duty to report accidents to the MAIB. Marine accidents can be reported to the MAIB through a reporting line, and accident report form, with accident reporting required for commercially operated vessels (in UK waters and UK vessels out with UK waters). Unless carrying to/from a UK port, and within the territorial waters of the UK foreign vessels are not required to report accidents to the MAIB. Guidance notes on how casualties and incidents should be reported are available on the MAIB webpages.

Investigations are not conducted for the purpose of establishing liability or blame but to provide lessons for the improvement of safety. Not all reports submitted to the MAIB are investigated. According to the MAIB website, the branch receives between 1,500 and 1,800 accident reports per year, investigating ~30 of these reports (Marine Accident Investigation Branch, n.d.a). The MAIB also provides recommendations and guidance to spread awareness and prevent accidents reoccurring.

MAIB Annual Reports delve into statistics for accidents each year, looking at a wide variety of data gathered from reported accidents that year, including statistics on the deaths and injuries of people involved in the accidents. Annual reports from the MAIB are available here.

As of March 2021 there are over 970 reports for investigated accidents available through the MAIB. Reports cover accidents dating back to 1987, with only one report of an accident predating 1987, namely a report on an accident in 1912, looking at the role the SS Californian played during the Titanic disaster.

The accidents investigated in the English Solway occurred at;

The accidents investigated in the Scottish Solway occurred at;

Accident list compiled from Marine Accident Investigation Branch (n.d.b)


Video; © Marine Accident Investigation Branch YouTube Channel

Spills and accidents


Department for Transport & Maritime and Coastguard Agency (2016). Port Marine Safety code. Available here. (Accessed: 10.03.21)

Dumfries and Galloway Council (2018). Harbours Safety Management System. Available here. (Accessed: 10.03.21)

Marine Management Organisation. (n.d). Marine Planning Evidence Base. Available here. (Accessed: 14.05.18)

Marine Scotland (n.d.). Scotland’s National Marine Plan Interactive. Available here. (Accessed: 06.08.19)

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (2020). Contingency Planning for Marine Pollution Preparedness and Response, Guidelines for Ports. Available here. (Accessed: 10.03.21)

Mills, F., Sheridan, S. and Brown S., (2017). Clyde Marine Region Assessment. Clyde Marine Planning Partnership. pp 231, Available here. (Accessed: 14.05.18)

Solway Firth Partnership (1996). The Solway Firth Review, Solway Firth Partnership, Dumfries. Available here. (Accessed 23.07.19)


In-Text References;

Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea  (2013- 2017). Annual Pollution Surveys Available here (Accessed: 10.03.21)

Baxter, J.M., Boyd, I.L., Cox, M., Donald, A.E., Malcolm, S.J., Miles, H., Miller, B., Moffat, C.F., (Editors), (2011). Scotland’s Marine Atlas: Information for the national marine plan. Marine Scotland, Edinburgh. pp 191. Available here. (Accessed: 22.07.19)

Marine Accident Investigation Branch (n.d.a) About Us. Available here. (Accessed: 19.03.21)

Marine Accident Investigation Branch (n.d.b.) Marine Accident Investigation Branch reports. Available here (Accessed: 19.03.21)

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (2017). National Contingency Plan. Available here. (Accessed: 19.03.21)

Natural England and NatureScot (2010). Natural England’s and Scottish Natural Heritage’s advice for the Solway European marine site given in compliance with Regulation 33(2) and in support of the implementation of the Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 1994. Available here. (Accessed: 15.12.20)


Image; Silloth Port. © Solway Firth Partnership