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How do Oil Spills Affect Marine Life?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Oil spills can happen in a number of ways, including the mishandling of oil pipes and tankers. Their profound affect on the marine environment has been carefully documented, in no small part due to famous spills like the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Oil spills affect marine life in a variety of ways, and without intervention on the part of scientists and ecologists, the marine environment may have a slow recovery time.

In addition to prominently profiled sources of oil spills and oil slicks, a lot of oil enters the marine environment through day-to-day human activity. Storm drains, for example, collect a great deal of oil waste from the streets and pass it on to the world's oceans. Spills can also occur due to natural seepage from oil bearing areas. The most dangerous type is one that dumps a large amount of oil all at once, overloading the ability of the ocean to process it. These large oil spills affect marine life very negatively.

When oil is spilled, most of the volatile compounds evaporate quickly. The oil, however, remains floating on the surface of the water, and starts to disperse, forming a very thin film that can cover large areas of water. Marine life that lives, hunts, or travels in the area covered with oil can be affected. Different types of marine life are impacted differently, depending on their physiology and habits. The compounds left behind after the volatile compounds play a large part in why oil spills affect marine life, since many of them are toxic, dense, and bioaccumulative.

One of the most direct ways in which marine life is affected by oil spills is by essentially suffocating plants and animals. Marine plants can be covered in a film of oil which prevents oxygen and water exchange, causing the plants to die. Marine life which feeds on this vegetation will in turn struggle to survive. Coatings of oil on the flesh of birds and mammals can literally kill them through suffocation. Oil spills also affect marine life such as birds by stripping the water resistant coating from their feathers. A bird weighed down by oil may have difficulty flying, and will develop hypothermia as a result of exposure to extremely cold water. Mammals also suffer, as oil can remove water resistant compounds from the coats of furred marine life like otters and seals.

Oil spills affect marine life like filter feeders by concentrating in the flesh of these animals. Clams, mussels, and oysters may quickly accumulate toxins, which can kill the animals or be passed on along the food chain. Human consumers often complain that shellfish harvested from an area impact by an oil spill taste heavy and oily. Animals that rely on these filter feeders for food may become sick and die as a result of consuming them. Oil spills usually affect marine life at multiple levels of the food chain, and require a lot of work to fix the problem.

The inhalation and ingestion of compounds related to oil spills can also harm marine life, both in the long and short term. In the long term, oil spills interfere with the ability of marine life to breed, reproduce, grow, or perform other vital functions. Toxins in oil can also cause cancers and other illnesses in the long term. If left untreated, the area around an oil spill can be denuded of life. Fortunately, there are ways to clean up oil spills. In addition to chemicals, ecologists also use bacteria which thrive on the compounds in oil to digest it and render it less harmful.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon266947 — On May 08, 2012

I think that oil spills are the worst thing to think about for a sea animal. That is a horrible thing to think about. I wish I could do something about it!

By anon254629 — On Mar 13, 2012

Can anyone give me detailed info about the oil spill in 2010?

By anon222749 — On Oct 16, 2011

Oil spills do affect marine mammals a lot, but they also affect plants. I did a science fair project of the effects of oil on plants, and the results devastated me. everyone works toward helping animals, but I don't think enough is being done for plants.

By anon144001 — On Jan 18, 2011

I am doing the oil spill for a science fair project. This website has been very helpful in information.

By anon139802 — On Jan 05, 2011

You make some great points but oil spills affect way more than just marine life. People get affected by this disaster just as much as marine life does. I am not saying that marine life is not important but fisherman and people who swim often get affected by this.

What people don't realize is that when the oil gets to the shore it can spread immensely and go a lot further than just the water. I am glad i got to read this. Thank you for stating these points of interest.

By anon132336 — On Dec 06, 2010

Are ocean life and marine life the same? Please help me answer this for my science project. Thanks.

By anon125214 — On Nov 08, 2010

The oil spills are horrifying, but hopefully the idiots responsible with get tired of losing money, and come up with a solution themselves.

By anon101297 — On Aug 02, 2010

the oil spill is awful. they need to do more than just shoot golf balls.

By anon88954 — On Jun 08, 2010

One person can still make a difference in this world. Simple interactions have a rippling effect. Each time this gets passed along, the hope in cleaning our planet is passed on.

By anon84945 — On May 18, 2010

the oil spill is terrible. they are not really that smart to put garbage on top of the oil. i think that will just make it worse. they should come up with a new solution.

By lokilove — On Feb 28, 2010

I remember the Exxon Valdez..the pictures and news coverage was heartbreaking to see.

I've seen them using surface skimmer net type things to contain and remove oil from the water surface. I've also seen them power washing beaches. I've never heard anything about oil eating bacteria though.

That would be an immense help I imagine, especially to the plant life and lower dwelling creatures.

Anybody know if this bacteria is something just discovered or is it being actively used for spills?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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