Oil Spills- A Bane For Aquatic Life


The world has witnessed some of the deadliest oil spills over the past that have claimed a multitude of lives. The  Torrey Canyon disaster off Cornwall, England, in 1967, the Amoco Cadiz disaster off Brittany, France, in 1978 have spilled several thousands of tonnes of oil into the seas. The very famous oil spill that took place in North America,  the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, also caused great ecological and economic damage. History proves that this is an issue that requires some serious pondering by one and by all. Let us first begin with getting educated about what oil spills are, and what are the causes that lead them to wreak havoc on the aquatic life. Extensive petroleum exploration on the continental shelf and use of supertankers since the 1960s have contributed majorly to this disaster. These Supertankers carry about 500,000 metric tonnes of oil across the oceans for trade purposes. This has caused the aquatic organisms to sacrifice their lives at the altar of such trade and commerce. Worse happens when these supertankers get wrecked or damaged during their course across the ocean, spilling major or minor amounts of the oil (both equally dangerous) into the surface of the ocean. Statistics confirm that these oil spills have discharged more than one million metric tonnes of oil into the sea surface annually. With such oil spills unleashing destruction of our marine bodies, the environment regulators have strengthened their operations and passed some stringent regulations to circumvent the issues of wrecked ships causing oil spills. Nevertheless, oil spills have not completely disappeared. It is known that ships are carrying oil repeatedly across an ocean spill some amount of oil during their to and fro journey that accumulates and causes the much obvious destruction in the due course of time. Added to this is the release of used gasoline solvents and crankcase lubricants by some negligent industries nearby an ocean. Having cited the causes of oil spills, let me unearth the various harmful impacts of oil spills on the marine life.

Impacts of Oil Spills:

We all are well aware of the fact that our environment is kept in a very fine balance by the interplay of various ecosystems that constitute it. Be it a marine ecosystem, pond ecosystem, desert ecosystem, land ecosystem, (to name a few) there is an intricate web that interconnects all these ecosystems. Even a slight ripple or a disturbance in one of these ecosystems upsets the balance and results in environmental disasters that we commonly face. Therefore, it becomes of utmost importance to us to measure both the short-term and long-term impacts of oil spills scientifically and estimate them at the ecosystem level. It is true that the oceans and seas recover with the passage of time, yet what we need to know is how long?? What if they don’t recuperate? What will the potential impacts be during the recovery phase? To help us all in addressing these inevitable questions, let me throw some light of the various impacts of oil spills:

Physical strangulation of aquatic organisms: Oils spills are hazardous because the viscosity of the oil is very high. This makes the oil thick in consistency, and thus, it floats on water. This creates a physical blockage for sunlight to reach the aquatic plants and animals. It also reduces the dissolved oxygen amounts. Sunlight is one of the pre-requisites for green plants to perform photosynthesis. In the absence of it, the plants are rendered handicapped in preparing their food. Consequently, all the underground plants perish after their food reserves get exhausted.

Disruption of normal physiological activities: The heavy oils lead to the asphyxiation of aquatic animals as they are unable to perform the physiological processes like respiration due to clogging of their lungs, feeding, and thermoregulation. A loss of insulating potential of the feathers and furs of the sea animals, they die of hypothermia. The sea birds, when they wet their feathers with the oil, they become heavy and are unable to take the flight. This causes large scale of seabirds.


Long term genetic changes: The chemicals poured out into the ocean in large quantities are readily taken up and sorbed into the organs, tissues and cells of the organisms and continue to accumulate at sub-lethal and lethal levels which ultimately spells major changes in the functions and body organs.

Alteration in the ecosystem dynamics: As earlier said, a slight disturbance in the balance of the ecosystems extrapolates too much larger overall impacts on the entire community. As the plants and animals of the marine ecosystem begin to yield into the disastrous effects of oil spills, the ecosystem begins declining fast. Though they are sometimes replaced by other organisms, this sometimes leads to an altered ecosystem with the new organisms different from the older ones on the physiological functions.

Economic loss incurred by the nations: Ecological change accompanies an economic loss to the fishermen, who thrive on commercial fishing. They have to suspend their fishing activities to prevent their equipments from getting damaged and to prevent the catching of contaminated fishes. These fishes if consumed can lead to human diseases and perpetuate the effects to the various other trophic levels. Oil spills are also a bane to the nations involved in maritime trade and to the various other interdependent industries. Tourism industry is also adversely affected.

Loss of habitat-: Oil spills and its damages cause a large scale displacement of the habitat of sea animals which also results in negative impacts to the land ecosystem.


Solutions to Oil spills:

Though the oceans and seas plagued with oil spills are known to recover in the long-term, the precipitous changes in marine environment such as storms, El Nino, the wide variability of the aquatic life to anthropogenic pressures, raise a question mark on to the extent at which the pre-spills conditions could be reached. It is said to fully recover only when the plants and animals in the marine ecosystem start functioning normally. Therefore, as they very rightly say, “Prevention is better than cure” , let us mull over some of the possible solutions to stop the oil spills from taking place in the first place.

Improvement in the designs and technology: The supertankers and ships carrying loads of oil across the ocean should be fitted with technologically advanced equipments which would address more than half of the entire issue. Recently, the US Coast guard’s Ninth District which is in charge of protecting the Great Lakes against the ravages of oil spills have been faced with the challenge of protecting the Great Lakes as it is an asset for the tourism, shipping and the fishing industry. They are in a constant effort of devising more and more technologically sound equipments to address oil spills. Cleaning up of the seas after oil-spill is both dangerous and not full proof. This is because certain components like tar sands are too thick to be cleaned up. They stick to one’s body like peanut butter. Therefore, in an attempt to deploy something more feasible, they have proposed some technologies that can be used, an example of which is the one from the Alion Science and Technology called theSeagoing Adaptable Heavy Oil Recovery System or the SEAHORSE. Unlike the traditional methods of oil-spill cleanup the SEAHORSE doesn’t use divers. Instead, it uses equipments that scan the ocean floor and propel the oil to the surface of the oceans. Though this technology is not very economical, an effort could be made to develop something on similar lines.

Stringent environmental regulations: Various strictures must be passed by the concerned authorities so that the negligent industries and individuals are heavily penalized for playing around with aquatic life and for sheer ignorance.

Use of floating booms: Floating booms can be places at the harbours or at the sea entrance to prevent the oil from oil from spreading across the ocean. A similar technique is called skimming is equally effective in separating oil from the water bodies.

Use of absorbents: Chemicals like volcanic ash, straw, shavings of plastic can ameliorate cleaning up of oil laden sea by absorbing the oil from the water bodies. Another better approach is the use of biosorbents. With the recent advances in biotechnology, various microorganisms can be used as sensors which absorb the oil into their membranes. This is a better method as it avoids any kind of potential harm that the usage of chemicals may invite.

Having cited the causes and possible solutions, I hope I could raise awareness about this very dangerous environment spoiler which is often neglected. However, it doesn’t stop here. Rigorous efforts should be continuously  made in the direction of technology for coming up with both cost-effective and sound technologies to deal with the quandary that oil-spills land us in. After all what use is the technological progress of the world, if it can’t serve our environment right?

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