This summer, a UK seismic survey vessel carried out studies offshore Western Sahara, accompanied by the protest of the government of the Western Sahara republic. The recent findings of Total’s new block suggest it was in fact the French company that had commissioned the studies.
A seismic study vessel, 'Sea Surveyor', was spotted on the seabed west of Dakhla, Western Sahara, for an approximately two months period between July and September 2012. The 'Sea Surveyor' is Bahamian flagged and owned by a U.K. based Marine survey company, Gardline
At the time it was not known which oil company the vessel worked for, but WSRW’s recent finding
that Total has got a large offshore block in the same area, could possibly explain the movements of the vessel. WSRW finds it likely that the studies were undertaken on behalf of Total, but has not confronted Gardline, Total or the Moroccan state oil company ONHYM about this.
It seems clear, though, that Total must have been obliged under its reconnaissance agreement or licence with ONHYM to undertake certain studies during 2012.
When 'Sea Surveyor' left the waters of Western Sahara, on approximately 8 September 2012, the vessel had carried out studies in generally 200 meter waters depth, some 20-60 nautical miles from land. The vessel made only a single port call in Las Palmas during the study, likely for provisions and to bunker, and then briefly called in at Agadir.
Also fishermen offshore Dakhla reported to WSRW the observations of such activity this autumn in the same area.
As the activity of 'Sea Surveyor' was detected and tracked, government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) contacted the owners of the vessel.
“We respectfully ask that Gardline Shipping explain the presence of the Sea Surveyor on the coast of Western Sahara, its intended program, and request formal approval for the vessel to remain present in our exclusive economic zone while conducting seabed exploration work. We ask that your company deal expeditiously with the matter”, a SADR official wrote to the chair of the company, Mr. Gregory Darling.
The letter also made reference to the legislation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, which states that there “shall be no exploration or economic exploitation of the natural resources of the exclusive economic zone by persons or vessels other than nationals of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, and no scientific research may be conducted within the zone and no artificial island, installation or structure may be constructed, operated or used within the one, for any of the foregoing purposes, unless such activity has been authorized by the Government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic” [Article 8(3), Law No. 03/2009 of 21 January 2009 Establishing the Maritime Zones of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Gardline on one occasion confirmed the operations offshore Western Sahara, but never responded to the request from the SADR government. WSRW has been told that the government of the SADR is considering what legal and diplomatic measures to take to prevent the recurrence of such exploration and against the vessel’s owners in this particular case.