Oil Spills and their Devastating Effects to our Oceans

by Iyanthi Kulathilaka

Oceans are the lifeblood of planet Earth and is vital to the survival of humankind. The ocean covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and it produces most of the oxygen that is needed for humans to breathe and contributes as a vital carbon sink by absorbing the most amount of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. The ocean is also home to a fragile but rich marine eco-system which is an integral part of human survival.

But over the course of time, humans have become over dependent on the ocean and especially due to intense human activities such as over-fishing, coastal development, and pollution from shipping, oceans around the world are becoming degraded. As carbon dioxide rises in the atmosphere so does the carbon dioxide percentage in the ocean, and this affects the whole ecosystem. Over-fishing has become one of the major threats to the world’s oceans; as a result of unsustainable practices by commercial fishing combined with coral bleaching, it is predicted that the world’s fisheries will completely collapse by 2050, if the current trend goes on. Marine plastic pollution has become a major issue with devastating consequences as almost 8 million tonnes of plastic per year end up in the ocean, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. But no single event is more devastating and more dangerous than the occurrence of an oil spill.

The Danger of Oil Spills

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Oil spill disasters have become a major concern for the marine world in recent times. They are commercial and environmental catastrophes as a result of accidents involving ships, oil rigs, pipelines, and even air pollution settling on the water. In an oil spill, the water becomes contaminated by liquid petroleum hydrocarbon, and the impacts of oil spills reach far beyond their original location. They can impact miles of habitat within a short period of time, killing marine life and birds, damaging beaches and mangrove forests, and affecting coastal human settlements for years to come.

It is immensely difficult to conduct a complete and efficient clean-up of an oil spill, especially if it is massive in size. Despite large-scale clean-up efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, which fouled Alaska’s Prince William Sound, it coated more than a thousand miles of pristine coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, and animals. Many years after the accident and despite billions of dollars spent on cleanup efforts, crude oil can still be found under the rocks and sand on the beaches of southwest Alaska, and the effects of the spills are apparent in the lasting damage done to many native species.

Oil Spills in Sri Lanka

On the 23rd of August 1999, Sri Lanka faced its first ever oil spill when a vessel named M V Melliksha was reported in distress off Dondra. The Master abandoned the vessel outside the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, loaded with 16,500 metric tons of fertilizer and about 200 metric tons of heavy fuel oil. Reports indicate that the fuel and the fertilizer that were released into the open water damaged the marine environment.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) of Sri Lanka is the Agency responsible for marine pollution prevention and related activities under the “The Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008. One of its most important functions is the formulation and implementation of the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP), which provides guidance on how to deal with an oil spill contingency. The purpose of Sri Lanka’s National Oil Spill Contingency Plan is to protect the Sri Lankan coast and minimize the effects of oil spills including risks and their possible effects on the environment, public health, and economic activities.

On the 7th of September 2006, Sri Lanka faced another oil spill due to the sinking of the vessel M V Amanat Shah, which was a ship from Bangladesh that was sailing from Rangoon (Myanmar) to Bombay (India). The ship contained 176 metric tons of fuel, and its accident affected a 13 km stretch on the southern coastal belt from Koggala to Habaraduwa, damaging the associated coastline and ravaging the estuarine ecosystems.

MEPA attempted to operationalize the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) as applicable but certain drawbacks were highlighted regarding the practicability of the NOSCP during the operation. As a result, new legislation has been introduced by the government to strengthen disaster management activity under the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act No. 13 of 2005 that covers disasters related to oil spills including inland and marine oil spills.

The potential threat of an oil spill is substantial in Sri Lanka due to several reasons. The density of marine traffic in Sri Lanka’s coastal waters is high due to Sri Lanka bordering the main East/West shipping route used by ships trading to and from the industrial centers of the Far East and the West, as well as the operations related to oil such as the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm and the expansion and development of ports and the construction of new ports.

So, what are oil spill disasters and why are they known as the single most dangerous event in marine environment history?

How Oil Spills Work

Oil floats on water and prevents sunlight to pass through it. The shiny substance settles on the top layer of water and makes it difficult for plants and sea animals to survive.

When oil is spilled in the ocean, it initially spreads in the water (primarily on the surface), depending on its relative density and composition. The oil slick may remain cohesive or break from rough seas, impacting the open ocean, coastal areas, and marine and terrestrial habitats in the path of the drift. Marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea otters are killed by oil spills due to oil clogging the blowholes of whales and dolphins and making it impossible for the animals to breathe or communicate properly.  Oil spills can contaminate the food supply of these marine mammals because fish and other food sources are exposed to the poisonous oil.

At a certain point the oil eventually stops floating on the surface of the water and begins to sink into the marine environment; the fragile underwater ecosystem is severely affected, killing or contaminating many fish and smaller organisms that are essential links in the global food chain. Oil waste also poisons the sensitive marine and coastal organic substrate.

Shorelines, mangrove forests, and other wetlands are severely affected by an oil spill. The oil washes up to the shores, coating the sand, rocks, and plants with oily residue. Fibrous plants and grasses absorb the oil, which can damage the plants and make the whole area unsuitable for humans and wildlife.

Taking Action

The impacts of an oil spill do not limit themselves to just the environmental elements but reach the local economy as well. Popular coastal tourism hotspots will not be appealing to tourists if they are covered with oil, and the locals that depends on tourism can find themselves in a difficult financial situation. If the clean-up of the oil spill is not efficient, fast, and complete, restaurants, hotels, and retail stores can be seriously compromised and property values may drastically drop as investors refrain from investment in the area because of concerns over a long-term drop in tourism.

History has shown that marine oil spills have a serious impact on marine life, as well as on economic coastal activities. It is important to ensure such accidents will not take place in Sri Lanka and around the world in the future by implementing strict measures to related organizations and personnel, for example regulations and regular inspections of sea vessels and oil rigs.

 

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