TIP 13 - Effects of Oil Pollution on the Marine Environment

Oil spills can seriously affect the marine environment both as a result of physical smothering and toxic effects. The severity of impact typically depends on the quantity and type of oil spilt, the ambient conditions and the sensitivity of the affected organisms and their habitats to the oil.

Oil spills can cause a wide range of impacts in the marine environment and are often portrayed by the media as ‘environmental disasters’ with dire consequences predicted for the survival of marine fora and fauna. In a major incident the short-term environmental impact can be severe, causing serious distress to ecosystems and to the people living near the contaminated coastline, affecting their livelihoods and impairing their quality of life.

Images of oiled birds following a spill encourage the perception of widespread and permanent environmental damage with the inevitable loss of marine resources. Given the highly charged and emotional reaction usually associated with oil spills, it can be difficult to obtain a balanced view of the realities of spill effects and subsequent recovery.

The impacts of spills have been studied and documented in the scientific and technical literature over several decades. Consequently, the effects of oil pollution are sufficiently well understood to allow for broad indications of the scale and duration of damage for a given incident. A scientific appraisal of typical oil spill effects reveals that, while damage occurs and can be profound at the level of individual organisms, populations are more resilient.

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