Oil spills and the marine ecosystem

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Transport of oil by sea increases every year.

European ports are the origin or destination of around a billion tons of oil per year, of which around 70% passes through ports on the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

The danger exists of seas, beaches and coastlines being polluted by oil spills, due to the number of accidents which happen every day. This has disastrous consequences for the sea and by extension for the plant and animal species which live in it.

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For our own survival it is vital that we take care of our oceans, coasts and beaches because sea pollution is a serious problem directly affecting plant and animal life and indirectly affecting human health.

For this reason, it is necessary to know what damage is caused by these disastersand develop effective plans of action to act as swiftly as possible if they occur and be prepared with all necessary oil spill containment and clean-up equipment.

Environmental impact of oil spills

The effect an oil spill has on the sea is progressive, in other words, it happens in different phases.

Firstly, when a spill occurs, an oil film forms on the surface of the sea which prevents light from passing through for several days, weeks or even months if the spill is not contained and recovered quickly. As many marine plants require sunlight to carry out photosynthesis, if they cannot do so their death is imminent.

The oil will gradually sink deeper into the sea, thereby resulting in much more problematic pollution. And the high toxicity of the chemicals it contains can cause many microorganisms to disappear.

Moreovery, in time, oil spills at sea can permanently affect all living beingswhich make up the marine ecosystem in question. Given that some species’ sources of nutrition and reproductive systems suffer serious alterations, their survival can hang by a thread as a result.

Spilled oil on sandy beach
Spilled oil on sandy beach

Which species are worst affected by this environmental problem?

Oil on seabirds following a spill
Oil on seabirds following a spill

In general oil spills at sea affect all marine mammals, fish and of course birds which spend most of their time in or near the sea.

The marine mammals which most suffer the negative effects of oil spills are dolphins and whales. This is because when they surface to breathe in air, the oil can cause obstructions in their respiratory passages.

Birds are also among the creatures which are most affected. Unfortunately, many birds die from poisoning when they try to clean themselves of pollutants. Oher birds lose the ability to fly due to oil on their wings and end up dying from hypothermia due to lack of movement.

And the other creatures most affected by the dangers of oil pollution are crustaceans and fish in general, making them unfit for human consumption.

While most crustaceans and fish will not be affected immediately by the spill, within days sea currents will carry a large part of the oil to where they are located..

How should an oil spill at sea be dealt with?

As the impact of the oil in the sea can be a major problem, it is important that preventive action is taken.

Oil spills in the sea can have disastrous repercussions for the environment if urgent action is not taken. Thousands of marine species may disappear because of direct contact with highly poisonous chemicals.

It is therefore necessary to make clear that it is possible to avoid collateral damage to beaches and seas by having a good oil spill prevention plan.

The best solution to oil spills at sea is to always be ready with professional equipment to help to contain and clean up the spill quickly and efficiently.

Port construction companies, oil companies drilling offshore and small or medium sized crude oil shipping companies, as well as industry, amongst others, keep a stockpile on site of the best containment booms, clean-up equipment and oil recovery skimmers, with the sole objective of acting swiftly and minimising the risks associated with this type of disaster.

Oil spill clean-up on beaches and coastlines
Oil spill clean-up on beaches and coastlines

The key to solving this serious problem is preparedness. Knowing how to prevent a spill from covering a beach means the disaster will be much more contained.