- The negative effects of oil spills do not halt with the local flora and fauna, which is often showcased, but instead extend deep up the food chain, and where a disaster reaches the food chain, it also reaches humans.
- Policy regulations can be made to ensure that fishing of a certain species or in certain areas is banned for the time following an oil spill to ensure the safety of consumers.
- The international trade of fish and shrimp may also be suspended, leading to massive GDP losses for those countries that bank on this aspect of trade.
- Effective UDA strategies that complement the three pillars of UDA applications – Policy, Technology and Innovation, and Human Resource Development- could train professionals to deal with oil spillages and ensure a professional clean-up and recovery standard.
- With the UDA’s strong confluence of scientific intervention and policy recommendations, the issue of oil spillages and their aftermath is one that the UDA can manage effectively.
Both large and small oil spills have become a recurring environmental nightmare that devastates marine ecosystems and disrupts aquatic life. It does not end there either, as even humans can be directly or much more commonly indirectly affected by these oil disasters. When these oil spills are covered by the news, we commonly get to see the immediate aftermath that it has on the surrounding ecosystem, such as pictures of birds covered in oil and too heavy to fly. The negative effects of these oil spills do not halt with the local flora and fauna, which is often showcased, but instead extend deep up the food chain, and where a disaster reaches the food chain, it also reaches humans. The economic impact of an oil spill is very costly and commonly costs way more than the settlement that is paid by the corporations that let the oil spill happen. This article explores the intricate web of effects that oil spills have on marine life, the subsequent impact on humans, and the imperative need for preventative measures and efficient cleanup strategies.
This article will explore how the UDA framework emerges as important in assisting the mitigation of the man-made disaster of oil spills that hampers marine biosystems and other cascading effects that will be explored further.
Effects of Oil Spills on Marine and Avian Life
The effects of these massive ecological disasters can be divided into two parts, the first part being the immediate effects of the spill and the second being the long-term impact of the oil spill on the marine life in the area and the local species’ recoveries.
The most visible result of the effects of oil spills on animals is the animals we observe covered in oil. This commonly happens to birds that land on oil-covered water surfaces, but it can also happen to aquatic mammals that come up to breathe. When these animals get covered in oil, their fur and feathers insulating properties significantly decrease, leading to hypothermia. It also handicaps a bird’s ability to fly and chokes out the mammals that are trying to breathe. And it’s not just the mammals that need to come up to the surface to breathe that suffer. The fish and other small organisms that exist under the oil layer can also struggle to breathe due to the oil layer restricting oxygen exchange along the ocean’s surface. Hence, marine and avian biodiversity are impacted negatively. These can be some of the short-term effects or some immediate effects resulting from the oil that floats on the ocean surface.
It is also possible, however, for oil to travel down to the ocean floor and settle as sediment that covers the seabed, including all of the plants and coral that exist there. Oil is lighter than water, so usually, it should only float on the top of the surface. This is true, and most of the oil does end up at the surface, but water columns, which reduce pressure in the water, can help oil travel down with the current, smothering coral reefs and other life on the seabed in the process (Gilbert, 2021).
These detrimental effects on marine life can impact the local ecosystem’s biodiversity and reduce the ecosystem’s ability to recover. Further long-term effects of the oil spill will also hinder the ecosystem’s survivability, such as the toxic hydrocarbons that are released from the oil that poison the fish living in the ocean. Here, we must monitor what species of fish are affected, the current and flow of the ocean, and the extent of the toxic exposure to establish how far the toxicity has spread. For this, the UDA framework becomes integral as it directly informs the scientific intervention necessary for mapping this requirement during an oil spill disaster.
Cascading Effects on Humans and the Economy
Toxicity does not only spread between one species of fish. It can also contaminate other species of fish due to the accumulation of toxins when the fish are eaten by other fish higher up in the food chain. This food chain contamination is of great importance to humans, as we need to ensure that fish containing toxins are not consumed. Policy regulations can be made to ensure that fishing of a certain species or in certain areas is banned for the time following an oil spill to ensure the safety of consumers. However, the larger point is that an avenue of human sustenance essentially turns contaminated. If humans were to consume these contaminated fish, they could develop various health issues such as cancer or heart disease. However, the health risks related to oil spills are not limited to the consumption of contaminated fish.
This also needs to be cleaned up, and this will take time, depending on how sensitive the beach consistency is to an oil spill (Gundlach, 2006).
The effects on humans extend even further if we also consider the economic impact of an oil spill. Fishing has to be suspended. Fisheries and local occupations of fishing often adopted by smaller island nations and indigenous communities come under threat. It threatens a viable occupation and has the potential to cause unemployment in a maritime-bound nation dependent on fishing. The international trade of fish and shrimp may also be suspended, leading to massive GDP losses for those countries that bank on this aspect of trade. In addition to this, affected countries must engage in clean-up expenses, witness drops in tourism levels, and increase public expenditure for public healthcare expenses. Sometimes, these may also be repatriation costs. BP, the company that was the perpetrator of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is now paying damages worth $65 billion for recovery (Lardieri, 2018). So, the macroeconomic picture is also not the brightest. Oil is a contested and limited resource that takes time to renew and form. The world’s oil market hangs in the balance because of natural abundance in some nations as opposed to others and the assumption that these nations will continue to want to trade oil as they will have availability of it. However, while the world has seen oil prices become unattainable during oil embargos, oil spills lead to massive lost profits from the oil that has spilled into the ocean (Bonnieux and Rainelli, 1993). Due to it being a natural resource, its recovery rate is slow, and the time value of money lost is immense. The graph below illustrates the same, as shown by Bonnieux and Rainelli (1993)
Preventative policies and clean-up methods
It is important for the safety of the people and the environment that policies are in place that reduce or even remove the risk of oil spills in the future. For this to happen, policy interventions and supervision are the main key. Stringent offshore drilling standards need to be in place to ensure a situation like the Deepwater Horizon will never occur again. Oil freight ships should also be maintained well and kept in outstanding condition to make sure there are no accidents.
Some argue that another approach to this problem of oil spillage could be adopting a ‘good riddance’ tone and considering making available other sources of energy that are more renewable and safer for the environment, as opposed to oil. It should be a priority to strive towards a future without fossil fuels that could make a whole ecosystem vanish. Still, the practicality of it is different, given that the efficiency and output of oil are difficult to replicate for a renewable source of energy. Hence, oil remains an interest and resource of choice even today, despite the emergence of so many new sources of energy.
To assume that oil spillages can be avoided might be too idealistic a position to vouch for. However, it is possible to mitigate the aftermath of an oil spillage. Many different methods of cleaning up the ocean have been researched and tested, such as using booms and barriers to prevent the spread or guiding the oil into one place before it is set on fire to dispose of it. There are also skimmers that remove the top layer of the ocean surface, which is the layer where oil usually collects. However, more creative options are also available, such as the use of human hair, which is a great absorbent for oils. Even methods that employ communities of microorganisms, such as oil-eating bacteria, to digest the oil effectively are amongst the tried and tested methods to combat oil spills. Continuing to innovate and come up with new ideas in this area is essential for our ongoing fight against environmental disasters like oil spills. Hence, research in this field must continue to develop with more ways devised.Scientific technology proves useful in this cause.
Resources such as a live map are more useful than the resources that currently exist for oil spills. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s incident map is not a live map but a manually updated map of reported incidents. A picture of the same is attached below
Easily accessible universal tools like these could help provide a quick response from all parties that are involved with containing the early spread of an oil spill and, therefore, reduce the spread of one dramatically.
The UDA’s environmental regulators and disaster management authorities can help navigate the crisis of an oil spillage after its occurrence – to manage it. Effective UDA strategies that complement the three pillars of UDA applications – Policy, Technology and Innovation, and Human Resource Development- could train professionals to deal with oil spillages and ensure a professional clean-up and recovery standard.
As we have observed, oil spills can turn out to be larger ecological disasters than they might at first look. Their effects are profound and far-reaching, the direct impact on marine life, the dangers to humans and their health, and not to forget the enormous economic damages that come with them, sometimes reaching costs of up to tens of billions of dollars per spill.
Let us aim to protect our Oceans, not contaminate them, and the necessary interventions through the UDA framework can be channelized more effectively.
Khwahish Vig, MRC Intern
Khwahish is currently pursuing her studies at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune. She is also doing her internship at Maritime Research Centre to understand the various aspects associated with Biosphere Reserves in India and abroard.