To find nature at its most imposing, visit an ocean. Oceans are vast and awesome sights to behold. Their sheer magnitude, overpowering currents and almost boundless biodiversity might give the impression that they are indestructible ecosystems, invulnerable to the activities of humankind.
History says otherwise. Probably the most vivid examples of marine deterioration are the effects of oil spills. The material beneath the earth’s crust is often hazardous to the life above it. Oil spilled from tankers is positive proof of this fact. Let’s talk about the main effects oil spills have on marine life.
1. Effects of Oil Spills on Fish
A common misconception is that fish bypass the problems associated with oil spills because they can swim at lower depths. Still, there are many instances where they suffer ill effects with other marine life. Shallow water swimmers, for example, are inclined to exposure, and their eggs even more so.
Shellfish are less migratory and agile than finfish, and are thus more susceptible to oil ingestion, especially since they lack the defensive enzymes that break down and expel harmful substances.
It is no surprise, then, that fish kills resulting from oil spills are frequently found in bays, lagoons and inlets, as well as near the shoreline. After a spill from an offshore barge, thousands of dead fish washed up on the Puerto Rico shores in 1994 because they were confined by territorial reefs.
2. Effects of Oil Spills on Plants
Although images of immobilized ducks and crippled penguins wrench the human heart, plant life is also destroyed by spilled oil. The vital life process of any plant – above-ground or underwater – is photosynthesis. Rays from the sun turn water and carbon dioxide into the fundamental nutrients on which a plant feeds.
When sunlight is blocked by an oil slick, photosynthesis is accordingly inhibited. Plant growth is stunted at best and an undersea plant might very well die of starvation. Actually, countless plants will.
Not only inadequate sunlight, but deterioration in water quality can similarly disrupt photosynthesis. Fish kills and death among other aquatic species lead to a significant rise in the bacteria levels of affected waters. These spikes actually lower the alkalinity of the water and stress the flora to such a degree that photosynthesis can cease and desist.
This domino effect highlights the interdependence of ocean life, the fragility of marine habitats and the long-term consequences of spilled petroleum-based fuels.
3. Effects of Oil Spills on Mammals
Sea mammals suffer from oil spills in myriad ways. Fur-bearing animals like seals, otters and sea lions are endangered when their coats get oiled. The resulting matting prevents the coat from providing the necessary warmth to the animals, bringing on hypothermia… and death.
Yet all oceanic mammals, including whales, porpoises and dolphins, are adversely touched by oil spills. Since they all need air to breathe, they will often surface, emerging through the oil slicks. In so doing, they contract skin irritations, conjunctivitis in the eyes and respiratory diseases.
Some studies show that reproductive capacity is compromised because of oil exposure. Those animals that clean themselves can ingest the oil, thereby damaging reproductive organs. The fruit of this activity can be sterility or severely deformed offspring.
Another detriment is the erosion of baleen in certain whales, diminishing their ability to eat properly. A healthy whale will take in large amounts of water – replete with krill, fish and other organisms – and then expel the water through the baleen system, leaving the edible creatures inside. Degraded baleen undermines this way of feeding.
4. Effects of Oil Spills on Birds
As with fur seals, oil infiltration can cause separation and matting in a bird’s feathers, exposing its sensitive skin to the elements. Reflexively, the bird attempts to clean itself but unintentionally ingests the oil. Often, the cleaning behavior – or preening – becomes so obsessive that the bird does not eat and ignores threats from creatures higher in the food chain. Worse, the oil alters a sea bird’s ability to float, causing it to seek refuge on land, away from its natural food sources.
All of this takes place because oil knocks feathers out of alignment. A bird’s plumage is an intricate work of natural engineering. The spine of each feather is marked with minuscule pores through which water could penetrate. Preventing this infiltration is the manner in which the feathers overlap so that none of the pores – or barbules – are exposed. This arrangement keeps a sea bird warm. Oil, of course, undermines this waterproofing.
5. Effects of Oil Spills on Humans
People living in the vicinity of oil spills are enduring their own maladies from the pollution. Although research is modest in this area, anecdotal evidence points to exposure to hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide as the root of varying symptoms.
Hacking coughs, chest pains, labored breathing, vomiting and dizziness were reported by nearly 300 Gulf of Mexico residents in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Since oil is composed of numerous compounds, including volatile organic compounds, scientists are considering a connection between the evaporation of benzene and toluene and the illnesses of the respondents.
Whether human exposure is through the lungs or through the skin, the damage can go deeper than discomfort and nausea. In fact, a remediation crew studied after a 2002 spill off of the Spanish and French coasts revealed degeneration in DNA. While many of the affected workers were guilty of not wearing masks and protective gear, the study underscores the damage uncontained oil can do to human health.
The Industrial Revolution was fueled by oil and fossil fuels. Like all progress, though, it came with a price. The transportation of this geological matter is not a foolproof task; human and technological error has led to massive displacements of oil into marine environments.
The devastation, as demonstrated, is widespread and lethal. Improvements in conveying oil – and a greater reliance on alternative fuels – will lessen the possibility that these disasters will repeat in the future.