The loss of the Erika, and the disastrous consquences, sent a shock wave through not just France, but the whole of the European Union.
The cost of the clean-up was close to a billion euros, and the EU feared that similar catastrophes might be waiting to happen.
Proposals for stricter shipping controls immediately followed. But European governments dragged their feet in adopting the changes.
Three years later disaster struck again. This time the Prestige oil tanker sank off the northern coast of Spain and it was the same story: a single-hulled vessel, a quarter of a century old, and millions of euros worth of damage to the environment.
“It showed the commission was right,” said the EU Transport Commissioner at the time, Loyola de Palacio. “We demanded that member states take urgent and decisive action to counter the threat of oil spills along our coasts.”
Since 2003 those measures have assumed a new urgency. The EU says aging vessels have to go. Ships over 15-years-old are responsible for four out of five disasters at sea.
From 2015 Europe’s ports will only be open to double-hulled tankers.
One in four ships entering European ports is now being routinely checked.
The European Union only recognises seaworthiness certificates issued by 13 classification societies worldwide.
The EU has drawn up a blacklist of countries it views as having lax regulations towards maritime safety.
These are countries, like North Korea and Syria, in which ship owners can register vessels more cheaply. When disaster strikes, unravelling the chain of responsibility can be nigh on impossible.
The problem can be seen in the example of the Prestige. She was registered to a company in Liberia, but owned by Greek operators, and chartered by a Swiss company with an office in London. Her certificate of seaworthiness had been issued in America.