The effects of oil spill on the marine ecosystem
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September 1, 2020

The effects of oil spill on the marine ecosystem

EDITOR: Oil drives the world’s economy. When it is transformed into petroleum, it is a key energy source used in vehicles, planes, heating, asphalt, and electricity. Outside of being a crucial energy source, petroleum is used in plastics, paints, chemicals, tape and so much more. It is hard to imagine a world without oil.

Crude oil and petroleum are fossil fuels because they are mixtures of hydro carbons that are formed from the remains of animals and plants that lived millions of years ago in a marine environment. Over millions of years, the remains of these animals and plants were covered by layers of sand, silt, and rock. Heat and pressure from these layers turned the remains into what we now call crude oil or petroleum. The word petroleum means rock oil or oil from the earth.

Oil spills are devastating to the marine environment. It destroys the insulating ability of fur bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water repellency of a bird’s feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements, without the ability to repel water and insulate from the cold water, birds and mammals will die from hypothermia.

Juvenile sea turtles can also become trapped in oil and mistake it for food. Dolphins and whales can inhale oil, which can affect lungs, immune function and reproduction. Many birds and animals also ingest oil when they try to clean themselves, which can poison them. When adult fish is exposed to oil, they may experience reduced growth, enlarged livers, and changes in heart and respiration rates, fin erosion, and reproduction impairment. Fish eggs and larvae can be especially sensitive to lethal and sub lethal impacts. Even when lethal impacts are not observed, oil can make fish and shell fish unsafe for humans to eat. Oil also reduces the amount of sunlight from penetrating the surface. Less sunlight means coral reefs and aquatic plants would die, which would have a negative effect on the marine animal population. It also reduces the level of dissolved oxygen in the water.

Marine animals dying from oil spill can wreak havoc for fishermen and for economies around the world. A shortage of seafood can disrupt fisher folk’s livelihood sending them into poverty. Fish is filled with omega–3 fatty acids, which help to keep our heart and brain healthy, and other essential nutrients. Less fish means it would have an impact on human health. Countries that export a lot of sea food would receive less foreign exchange, which would affect the Gross Domestic Product [GDP]. It would also cause seafood prices to increase on the market, which would cause consumers to dig deeper in their pockets. According to a BBC news article publish on April 20, 2011, in April 2010, the deep water horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and resulted in 4.9m barrels of oil being discharged, threatening marine life and hundreds of miles of coastline. ( BBC news also published another article on August 26, 2020, stating that at least 17 dolphins have been found on the coast of Mauritius, prompting debates about whether a recent oil spill was to blame.

How to tackle oil spill:

  • The use of oil booms is a very simple and popular method of controlling oil spills. Equipment called containment booms acts like a fence to prevent the oil from further spreading or floating away.
  •  Once the oil has been confined by using oil booms, skimmers or oil scoops can be deployed on to boats to remove the contaminants from the water surface. Skimmers are machines specially designed to suck up the oil from the water surface like a vacuum cleaner. They are used to physically separate the oil from the water so that it can be collected and processed or reused.
  •  Bioremediation refers to the use of specific microorganisms to remove any toxic or harmful substances that are various classes of bacteria, fungi, archaea and algae that degrade petroleum products by metabolizing and breaking them into simpler and non-toxic molecules [mostly fatty acids and carbon dioxide]. This process is generally not used when the spill has happened in the deep seas and is gradually put into action once the oil starts to approach the shoreline.

Kimani Wiseman