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Effects of Oil Spills on Aquatic Environments Term Paper

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Updated: Apr 4th, 2019


For many years, oil spills has remained a global challenge affecting our environment. Every day, millions of liters of oil are leaked to various water bodies, resulting onto both short-term and long impact to marine life and the entire environment since ecosystems are naturally interrelated.

There is no doubt that effects of oil spills are never friendly, forcing people to establish strategies and mechanism that would minimize such occurrences (Klein 2010).

It is however important to mention that the severity of the damage caused by oil spills depends on a wide range of factors including but not limited to the season and weather, type and quantity of oil, type of waves available and type of shoreline.

This term paper synthesizes the concept of oil spills by mainly focusing on how oils spills affect aquatic life in the world. Besides this core task, the paper further formulates and resolves clear objectives that represent fundamental issues regarding the research topic.

By assessing different sources of literature, the research further explores some of the investigations that have been carried out by scholars and documented. This is aimed at integrating various opinions and perspectives that surround oil spills.

Moreover, the paper equally values the basis of current understanding of the topic, by analyzing the findings documented by different authors.

In additional, the evaluated evidence is weighed to determine how convincing they are and how some of the pending issues about the research topic can be resolved. To gather relevant and up-to-date information about the topic, academic journals will be consulted in details.

Oil spills

When most people in the world think about oil spills, what comes to mind are oil tankers leaking their petroleum products into seas or oceans. Importantly, oil that is spilled on land can also reach rivers, lakes and wetlands where equally fatal damage could be caused (Oil Spill Intelligence Report 2011).

In general, marine environments comprise of oceans and all other saltwater bodies existing naturally. On the other hand, rivers, lakes and other inland water bodies are referred to as freshwater environments. A combination of freshwater and marine environments is called aquatic environment (Congressional Digest 2006).

Since life exists in aquatic environment, any alteration of the natural conditions is likely to affect the existence of organism in these habitats. Such changes are commonly caused by oil spillage, which ends up affecting animals and plants that are found in these aquatic regions in the world.

When oil spills in water, there is usually a high likelihood of affecting all the organisms living under water and even those that are adapted to the water surface (Klein 2010). Notably, this spillage can affect sections of the food chain, which may include food resources for human beings.

It is also worth noting that the severity of the effects of oil spillage immensely depends on a wide range of factors including but limited to the characteristics of the oil itself. Other factors include natural conditions like temperature and weather, which may affect the ease of the oil to spread and affect a wider area.

Oil in aquatic environment

According to Congressional Digest 2006, there is very little discussion concerning the impact of oil and its products on aquatic environment. By examining the world history, it is possible to understand the impact of oil to the environment in recent years.

It is true that fortunes have been made from oil and its products but lives have also been affected negatively (Congressional Digest 2006). Notably, oil is one of the products widely used in the world due its reliability as fuel in countless processes.

This wide-spread use of the oil and its products has inevitably resulted into accidental releases to the aquatic environment. Nevertheless, the frequency of spillage, environmental consequences and size of the oil may determine the kind of mitigation efforts to be adopted in order to lower severity of spilled oil or reduce the frequency of such incidences (Begley et al 2010).

In a 2006 survey carried out by the Congressional Digest, it is noted that several countries including the United States have engaged in strategic decision-making and analyzing policies, which regulate extraction, transportation and exportation of oil and its products (Congressional Digest 2006).

Others argue that the price of oil has to relate with its widespread usage around the world. Regardless of the stance taken by world leaders and decision makers, it is doubtless that oil spills pose a major problem to the aquatic environment (Begley et al 2010). This is always the case regardless of whether they are chronic discharges or catastrophic spills.

Besides the physical impact caused by large oil spills, the toxicity of compounds found in petroleum is quite significant and cannot be underestimated. This implies that even the smallest and negligible quantities can cause death of aquatic organisms.

Some of the compounds equally affect human beings like certain aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known to be carcinogenic in human bodies (Begley et al 2010). It therefore suffices to mention that informed decisions concerning spillage control can only be achieved if one understands the manner in which oil is released to the aquatic environment.

Impact of oil spills

According to the Congressional Digest 2010, oil is a dominant source of energy in most parts of the world. In the United States, oil supplies the nation with almost forty percent of its fuel needs. This depicts how humanity depends on oil in different ways. The wide spread of oil is mainly in industries, transport and residential sector (Begley et al 2010).

Additionally, oil is transported to the United States through pipeline before it is redirected to other parts of the nation where it is put to use. With its widespread use and continuous movement, it is doubtless to note that several oil spills occur daily. Even as this spillage continues, the concern raised over the issue is whether the country has enough personnel to urgently respond to oil spills in the country.

Impact to the environment

In exploring the impact of oil spills, it is essential to double emphasize that no oil spill is safe. Depending on a number of factors like time and location, even minor spills can turn out to be lethal to the environment. In such cases, individual organisms or the entire population is likely to suffer severely (Congressional Digest 2010).

Additionally, the impact of oil spoil cannot be singly described as spontaneous. In general, this can be felt over a wide range of time, thus prolonging its impact to the aquatic environment. This time scale can vary from hours to years and decades (Beard et al 2010).

As a result, it is possible for marine life to experience the impact of oil spills, which may have occurred several decades ago. Based on this analogy, the effects of oil spills can be broadly be divided into two groups, acute and chronic effects. Acute impact is experiences instantly or within a short period of time after oil spillage has occurred.

This is sometimes referred to as short-term impact (Klein 2010). On the other hand, chronic effects of oil spills may be manifested for a long period of time. Additionally, the manifested effects may take relatively more years to fade as compared to acute effects. Chronic effects of oil spills are also known long-term effects. The two types have been described below.

Acute impact

Depending on certain factors and properties of the oil, acute exposure to oil spills may cause death of marine animals among other complications. According to Congressional Digest 2010, the reproduction ability of aquatic animals can be affected by the oil spills into water.

The implication of such a scenario would be the inability of different species to multiply and sustain their generational existence. As a result, severely affected species may face extinction, caused by the inability to add in number. Besides impaired reproduction, aquatic animals also suffer from altered development due to oil spills (Congressional Digest 2010).

This means that these animals become prone to abnormal development characterized by deformation. This may negatively affect the organisms in adapting to the environment, thus being faced out from the habitat by the law of natural selection.

Additionally, acute effects of oil spills cause feeding difficulties among affected animals. As a major process in life, poor feeding would result in starvation and ultimate death of affected animals. Coupled together, these effects may result into the inability of aquatic organisms to defend themselves from common predators and deadly diseases, which may threaten their survival (Gore 2010).

Commonly affected animals include birds, marine mammals, intertidal species and other organisms especially during their developmental stages like larvae and eggs. Importantly, oil spills can also lead to destruction of the structural arrangement of the ecosystem besides individual disruption of organisms within a given habitat.

In this case, commonly affected habitats include coral reefs, salt marshes and mangrove swamps since the physical structure of these habitats solely depends on existing living organisms (Gore 2010).

Of great significance is the fact that these acute effects emanating from oil spills on marine ecosystems and individual organisms have been well-studied and established through laboratory findings.

Chronic impact

As mentioned above, these effects take a long period of time and result from exposure to continuous oil spills like leaking pipelines, nonpoint sources and offshore production discharges into aquatic environments (Gore 2010).

Although most spills are associated with acute effects, research has revealed that some oil spills lead to chronic effects to habitats and these may be experienced for decades before the affected environment fully recovers from the trauma caused by the spillage.

Similarly, scholars concur that continuous exposure to low-level oil contaminators can affect the overall survival and reproduction of affected organisms like marine birds and mammals.

However, complexity of factors, which may include longer periods and the presence of other pollutants in water, makes it difficult to ascertain the exact impact of chronic oil exposure in a given aquatic habitat (Gore 2010). The following segments of this analysis focuses on how individual classes of animals like invertebrates, fish and birds get affected by oil spills.


Oil can affect marine invertebrates through direct poisoning or via alteration of metabolic processes, physical smothering and interference with shell formation. These effects can therefore be lethal or sub-lethal depending on their severity and period of exposure.

When there is high concentration of oil at the shorelines, it is believed that most of the marine invertebrates affected are those known to be intertidal benthic (Congressional Digest 2010).

Additionally, sediments, which are commonly found at the bottom of the sea or ocean, may become reservoirs for spilled petroleum. Even though some deep-dwelling invertebrates may survive this exposure, they may become harmful to their predators due to accumulation of contaminants in their bodies.


Like many other aquatic animals, fish can be severely affected by oil spills in water bodies. Common ways in which fish get affected is through ingestion of oil or oiled prey, direct uptake via the gills, effects on eggs and larvae and the overall change in the ecosystem that may affect their habitat that is key for their survival (Klein 2011).

Consequently, fish get exposed to several complications including reproduction and growth impairment. In addition, oil affects spawning since most fish eggs and larvae are highly sensitive to oil poisons.

Birds and mammals

The insulation ability of feathers and fur can be limited by the presence of oil. As a result, there are documented cases of birds and fur-bearing animals dying of hypothermia (Mahmoud and Abd El-Rahman 2010). During extreme cold conditions, it is important to underscore the fact that a single drop of oil can kill a bird.

Additionally, excess oiling of birds may affect their ability to fly and balance on water, causing them to be prone to predation and drowning. In efforts to free themselves from oil and clean themselves, birds and animals inhale and ingest petroleum products (Congressional Digest 2010).

This exposure may result into instant death especially in cases where direct ingestion takes place. In addition, ingestion may affect body organs and systems, resulting into prolonged death.

Although little is known concerning the long-term effects of oil spills on birds, some complications have been studied. These include suppressed immune system, skin irritation, organ damage, ulceration and behavioral changes among others (Leyden 1991).

Due to unstable immune systems, birds and animals in contaminated aquatic environments are likely to suffer from secondary infections and death. Similarly, behavioral changes may hinder some animals from finding food or defending themselves from predators (Congressional Digest 2010).

Non-lethal ways through which oil affects marine birds and mammals include the impairment of the reproduction system. Animals which feed on contaminated carcasses are also at risk of being poisoned by oil.

Examples of such animals include avian and mammalian scavengers like arctic foxes, bald eagles and ravens (Klein 2011). Research found out that Exxon Valdez was the main cause of reduced reproduction and high mortality rate among bald eagles.


Based on its chemical make-up, oil can survive in the environment for a long period of time, long after spillage (Beard et al 2010). For instance, oil has been detected in sediments, three decades after the spillage occurred. Oil spills can have a wide range of effects on a given habitat, including destruction of population structure, influence on distribution, diversity and species abundance.

Inadequate prey and loss of prey equally affects the population of marine life. Oil is known to remain active in the environment long after its spillage. However, certain areas, which are not exposed to weathering processes, are likely to hold oil for a longer period of time (Mahmoud and Abd El-Rahman 2010).

Nevertheless, pelagic and communities that inhabit the offshore are flexible as compared to inshore habitats. Despite the fact that oil is still present in the coastal region, fifteen years after the spill in Prince William Sound, some animals in this environment have significantly recovered.

It is therefore believed that the continued impact of the oil spill will mainly affect animals that reside and feed in certain areas that have high concentration of oil (Congressional Digest 2010). In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with the mandate of ensuring that the impact of oil spills is minimized to the lowest possible level once such an accident is experienced.

Importantly, this process continues even long after a spill event to deal with long-term effects, which may result from such spills (Klein 2011). This continued support of the affected aquatic environment further ensures that future wildlife generations can survive without complications.

Economic costs of oil spills

Besides its direct impact on the aquatic environment, oil spillage has economic implications, which may adversely drain the economy of a nation. The following section of this paper analyses some of the costs.

Cleanup costs

The cleanup costs for oil spills vary widely depending on a number of factors, which may include the type of oil, quantity of oil and the characteristics of the region. Among these factors, location is given a lot of weight since it encompasses several variables (Oil Spill Intelligence Report 2011).

For instance, areas with stagnant water are likely to be more costly in cleaning than those with open and moving water. Stringent cleanup standards are usually necessary during recovery processes of tourist destinations like coral reefs. To achieve these standards, extra costs are incurred (Leyden 1991).

The political and social culture of the surrounding equally impact on the cleanup process. Oil spills affecting shoreline ecosystems are likely to draw attention from the media and other groups. This may quicken the process as compared to when the spill site is dominated by low-class people (Klein 2011).

Highly viscous oil like crude oil is difficult and expensive to clean as compared to other products like gasoline and several refined products, which may require lower cleanup expenses.

These materials quickly evaporate, leaving small quantities of oil that can to be collected easily and affordably (Klein 2010). Under constant factors, large volumes of oil spilled will require more resources compared to a case where the environment is contaminated with a small volume of oil.


From this analysis, it is evident that oil spills have a wide range of effects on aquatic environment. More so, marine life is adversely affected in countless ways, which may be lethal or non-lethal. In extreme cases, death of animals and extinction of some species are some of the major challenges facing most countries.

Why is oil spillage an issue? Based on how oil affects aquatic life, it can be argued that many people do not have a clear understanding of how oil leaks to various water bodies either by direct spillage or through drainage from dry land (Congressional Digest 2010).

This makes it difficult to implement preventive measures that would guarantee total protection of marine wildlife. In resolving this issue, public awareness is paramount to ensure that the entire population understands the cause, effects and prevention of oil spillage. Above all, environmental conservation is important in promoting healthy living conditions for plants, animals and human beings.


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Begley, S., D. Stone, and I. Yarett. 2010. What the spill will kill. Newsweek 155:24-28.

Congressional Digest. 2006. Petroleum in the Marine Environment. Congressional Digest 85: 231-234.

Congressional Digest. 2010. Effects of Oil Spills on Wildlife. Congressional Digest 89: 170-192.

Gore, A. 2010. The Crisis Comes Ashore. New Republic 241:10-12.

Klein, N. 2010. A Hole in the World. Nation 291:14-20.

Klein, N. 2011. After the spill. Nation 292:11-18.

Leyden, B. M. 1991. Oil Spills Make for Troubled Waters. Teaching Pre K-8 21:58-60.

Mahmoud, S. A., and T. M. Abd El-Rahman. 2010. A New Family of Oil Spill Dispersants: The Effect of Structural Variation on the Oil Spill Dispersant Efficiency. Petroleum Science & Technology 28:1394-1406.

Oil Spill Intelligence Report. 2011. 2010 Tanker Spill Statistics Released. Oil Spill Intelligence Report 34:4-4.

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"Effects of Oil Spills on Aquatic Environments." IvyPanda, 4 Apr. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/effects-of-oil-spills-on-aquatic-environments/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Effects of Oil Spills on Aquatic Environments." April 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/effects-of-oil-spills-on-aquatic-environments/.


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