How Oil Spills Effect the Ocean and What We Can Do About It

June 12, 2021

Surprisingly, oil spills are more common than you might think. Thousands of oil spills occur in US waters every year, yet most of these spills are small. Many people normally think of major disasters, like a pipeline burst or a drilling operation gone wrong. However, small spills, such as refueling a ship, can still cause damage to an aquatic ecosystem, especially if these small spills happen in a sensitive environment. Oil spills can occur anywhere that oil is drilled, transported, or used, and with most of the world using oil – it can really happen anywhere!

Oil spills generally effect wildlife in two ways. Oiling is a term for oil physically harming a plant or animal. We all have seen TV commercials related to dish soap that is used to remove oil from an otter’s coat or a penguin’s feathers. The effected animal’s survival depends on how much oil they have coated on them. It will be difficult for an animal to survive coated in large amounts of oil. Animals may also accidentally ingest oil when attempting to clean themselves. Fish that comes into contact with oil can become unsafe not only for animals like sea lions, but for humans as well. Wildlife can be silently harmed through oil toxicity. Oil compounds are toxic and can cause a variety of health issues, such as immune system deficiencies, in humans and animals.

The U.S. Coast Guard is primarily responsible for cleaning up oil spills, however, as we learned in our science experiment presented on social media, not all of the oil can be removed from waterways. It is a delicate balance between removing the oil, and making sure the ecosystem isn’t being damaged by the removal process.

Together, there are small steps we can all take to prevent oil spills into our waterways. These steps include various suggestions, such as:

  • Properly dispose of used oil and oil filters
  • Do not overfill fuel tanks
  • Immediately contain spills and using absorbent pads for any cleanup
  • Support reputable organizations that rescue wildlife from oil spills, such as SANCCOB Saves Sea Birds. Many ecosystems are shared, so helping one species usually helps out another!
  • Connect with water conservation groups at a local level, such as participating in a local cleanup held by Seneca Park Zoo! All pollution is a threat to wildlife.
Photo by Walter Brooks

– Morgan Saidian, Zoo Keeper

Photo by Elesa Kim