PORT KAVKAZ, Russia (AP) – Fierce winds Tuesday hampered crews struggling to clean up in the wake of a killer storm that sank at least 11 ships and split an oil tanker in two, spilling tons of petroleum in the waters near this southern Russia seaport.

Officials called the breakup of the tanker an environmental disaster for the region and warned that the 560,000 gallons of spilled fuel oil, which has killed an estimated 30,000 birds, could cause long-lasting damage to marine life.

Leading Russian environmentalists, meanwhile, said the oil spill was triggered by years of official negligence that allowed oil transport ships to use outdated and inadequate equipment.

“It’s a long-expected disaster,” environmentalist Sergei Golubchikov told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday. “We could lose the Black Sea if we go on this way.

Russia has a lot riding on the health of the Black Sea: President Vladimir Putin has pledged to spend $12 billion on developing the port of Sochi as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Eleven ships sank or ran aground in Sunday’s gale, including the tanker that spilled the fuel and a freighter that carrying sulfur, officials said. The bodies of three crew members from the freighter have been found, and crews were searching for five missing crewmen, said Sergei Kozhemyaka, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

High winds have prevented salvage teams from launching an effort to sweep the oil off the water’s surface, officials said, allowing patches of the slick residue to drift to the seabed, where it could linger for years.

Yelena Vavila, an expert with the regional environmental monitoring agency, warned about “increased concentration of oil in the water for at least five years.”

The storm battered vessels plying the waters of the narrow Kerch Strait, connecting the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. Russia ships almost 25 percent of its oil exports via the Black Sea.

The most important task now is to build a dam to prevent the slick from floating into the Sea of Azov, said Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian state environmental safety watchdog Rosprirodnadzor. “We have a real chance to save the ecosystem of the Sea of Azov,” he said.

However, Russia and Ukraine have a long-running argument over which country controls what parts of the waterway. Ukraine has objected in the past to Russian plans to build a similar dam, calling it an attempt to strengthen Moscow’s claim to a disputed island.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov visited the region Tuesday and said that most of the oil could be cleaned off the shoreline within three weeks and that all would be gone within 45 days.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said he would meet with Zubkov and called for review of bilateral relations.

“We definitely need to examine, or, perhaps, re-examine the treaty between Ukraine and Russia,” he told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Meanwhile, scores of birds – weighed down by thick coatings of the fuel oil – hopped weakly along the shore or perched helplessly in the sand. Workers with pitchforks and shovels collected vast clumps of oil mixed with sand, seaweed and dead birds.

Environmentalists call for tougher regulations. “Russia needs a law that regulates sea pollution, and the Kerch Strait should be declared an especially vulnerable sea zone,” Golubchikov said.

So far, the birds are the catastrophe’s most obvious victims. Vasily Spiridonov, marine and coastal projects chief coordinator for the WWF-Russia, said “the damage to the seafloor ecosystem is harder to measure.”

But at least one Russian scientist cautioned against overstating the effects of the spill, saying the flyways of swans and other migratory birds lie to the south of northern Black Sea coastline.

“The claims about the death of 30,000 birds are, most probably, an overestimation,” Boris Vasilyev, a biologist at the Moscow State University, told ITAR-Tass.

Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow.

AP-ES-11-13-07 1616EST

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