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Impacts of Oil Spills on Marine and Terrestrial Ecosystems

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In this paper am going to examine the factors contributing to oil spills, and their effects on marine and terrestrial ecosystems. This addition of phytoplankton leads to depletion of oxygen levels in water, making it hard for survival of animal and plant population in the water.  These oil spills do not only affect the marine system but also the chronic urban contamination and the economic loss. The oil spill has total effect on marine life despite the distance from the oil spill. The closer the oil spill is to the shoreline, the more damage it causes.  The effects are also felt toward the offshore and the coastal environment.


Oil spill is an accidental or intentional release of liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment. The environment is onshore or offshore leading to pollution. Mostly the key pathway of oil spills is through the marine oil spills. In this pathway, oil is released into the aquatic environment. The process is through spills from tankers drilling rigs and wells. Naturally oil may enter the marine life through oil seeps.

Effects of oil spills on birds

The effects of oil spills are in many cases long-term effects. The short-term effects, though, can also be disastrous.  Oil spills are dependant on wind and currents for faster spreading. When oil mixes with the water, it forms a sticky substance known as "mousse".  This substance clings to whatever it comes into contact with since it is sticky. Some marine animals mistake it for food. Birds usually have a hard time flying after coming into contact with the "mousse". The mousse makes the birds’ feather heavier, making it impossible for the bird to fly thus drowning. The bird also becomes vulnerable to predators since it cannot fly. Predators that feed on these dead birds also end up dying due to poisoning by the mousse (McCoy & Salerno, 2010). The oil enters into the plumage structure of the bird and reduces the insulation capability. The bird is thus exposed to temperature fluctuations and less buoyant in water. The birds ingest the oil on the feathers, and this causes kidney damage and malfunction of the liver. A very small percent of birds exposed to oil spills survives unless there is an intervention by a human (Peter & Smithson, 2002).

Effects of oil spills on Marine mammals

The marine mammals that are largely affected by oil spills consists of the  Seals, sea lions, polar bears, sea otters, whales, dolphins, and manatees. This is due to their adaptation main power in fur and blubber.  The mammals living in a cold environment are mostly affected by hypothermia. Other effects include organ malfunction due to toxic exposure. The organ malfunction consists of interstitial emphysema gastrointestinal ulceration.  The mammals encounter a lot of stress due to restriction of diet and continuous exposure to oil. Seals are highly vulnerable to oil spills since they spend much of their feeding time near the surface of the water.  Fur seals are exposed to oil adhering to the fur. The adhering leads to the fur loosing insulation ability. The oil coating on fur seals results also in reduction in swimming ability and a lowered mobility of the seals on land. The seals are also affected by poisoning caused by feeding on already contaminated prey and inhalation of oil droplets.

Sea otters usually spend their time on the water surface and are totally dependant on fur for isolation and float ability. The famous Exxon Valdez disaster is blamed to be the main cause of 15,000 otters, due to ingestion of oil. Polar bears depend on blubber and a thick under fur for insulation. They often groom their fur. While grooming oil contaminated fur, polar bears may swallow oil, resulting to death due to intoxication. The intoxication damages the kidney and lowers the ability to produce red blood cells in polar bears. Whales are rarely affected by oil spills as they are always on migration. Baleen whales are the only whales affected as oil stick to the whales when they are filtering their feed. They take a large amount of water in order to select their catch.

A dolphin is a smooth-skinned and hairless mammal. Therefore, there is less possibility of oil sticking to their skins. In this case, the dolphins are affected by the inhalation of oil vapor. The inhalation damages the dolphins’ airways and lungs. The other minor effect is the dolphins’ eyesight and unending stress. Manatees and dugong are found in areas with warm waters; also depend on a layer of blubber for insulation. Their effect by oil spills is similar to that of the dolphins.

Turtles, Fish and Shellfish

Oil spills damages the turtle airways when they surface on top of water contaminated by oil slick. Their feed is affected also affected by oil spills and thus poisons the turtles.  The areas that the turtles nest in the beaches are sandy. Oil contamination on the nesting sites leads to contamination of the eggs inhibiting proper development. Fish, one of the largest populations in the marine life ingest oil through their gills. This ingestion often leads to enlargement of the liver and reproduction capacity. In the Gulf of Mexico, there is an alarming rate at which the fish are dying due to the effect of oil spills and contamination. The death of fish is due to skin lesions, fin rot and liver blood clots in the fish surrounding the environment (Margaret & Judith, 2010). The only effect on shellfish is not direct. The effect is indirect, since the affected is the person feeding on the shellfish. Shellfish exposure to oil spills leads them to acquiring an extremely unpleasant taste and makes it impossible to be eaten.

Effects of oil spills on plants

The effects of oil spills on plants vary with every species of plant. The most common effect in all the species is the coating effect. This is because almost all plants depend on their leaves for production of food. The coating of oil on the leaves makes it impossible for the plant to have proper exchange of gas with the environment and production of food. This effect leads to slower growth rate of plants and in some cases quick death of the plant. Oil spills contamination leads to the death of algae and plankton.  The large number of plants dying leads to excessive addition of ammonia and nitrites in the water. Conversely, levels of dissolved oxygen lower just as the pH levels.  The changes in water chemical composition lead to toxicity of environment as a whole.


Oil spills contribute in extremely large portion of polluting the environment.  Proper measure should be put in place to avoid such mess. The measure accounts from government policies proper and self-regulatory measures per each person. This can be achieved through proper education of the society on the dangers of oil spill pollution and strict government policy to ensure that person complies.  The hotel industry should also be cautious with the type of sea food that they sell.  Proper Seafood Sensory Training is recommended for them to enable them detect oil in seafood. Float oil barriers should be used around the affected area, especially the ones with strong currents. Any incidence of oil spillage leads to possible death of either the marine animal or plants. Therefore, the source of this pollution should be dealt with as it may take many years to clean the effect.

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