Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine And Coastal Wildlife

Marine and coastal wildlife exposed to oil suffer both immediate health problems and long-term changes to their physiology and behavior. In small doses, oil can cause temporary physical harm to animals. Types of trauma can include skin irritation, altering of the immune system, reproductive or developmental damage, and liver disease. When large quantities of oil enter a body of water, chronic effects such as cancer become more likely, and direct mortality of wildlife can be widespread.


Oil spills can impact wildlife directly through three primary pathways:

  • ingestion – when animals swallow oil particles directly or consume prey items that have been exposed to oil
  • absorption – when animals come into direct contact with oil
  • inhalation – when animals breathe volatile organics released from oil or from “dispersants” applied by response teams in an effort to increase the rate of degradation of the oil in seawater


Oil spills can also have indirect effects on wildlife by causing changes in behavior:

  • relocation of home ranges as animals search for new sources of food
  • increases in the amount of time animals must spend foraging
  • disruptions to natural life cycles


The magnitude of harm caused to wildlife by oil spills varies according to a number of factors:

  • the amount of exposure of each animal to oil
  • the pathway through which each animal is exposed to oil
  • the age, reproductive state, and health of each animal
  • the type of synthetic chemicals used by response teams to clean the spill




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