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Effects of Oil Spills on

Wildlife and Habitat


Alaska Region
Sediment plume and sheens of
refloated oil, Prince William
Sound, AK. NOAA

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aquatic life (fish, invertebrates, and Very heavy oils can float, mix, sink, or
is the federal agency responsible for plants) that live in the upper water hang in the water. These oils can become
many of the nation’s fish and wildlife column. oil drops and mix in the water, or
resources. Having this responsibility accumulate on the bottom, or mix with
has established the agency as one of the Light oils (diesel, light crude, heating sediment and then sink.
primary trustees for fish, wildlife and oils) are moderately volatile and can
habitat at oil spills. leave a residue of up to one third of the Wildlife and Habitat
amount spilled after several days. Light Oil causes harm to wildlife through
Oil spills affect wildlife and their oils leave a film on intertidal resources physical contact, ingestion, inhalation
habitats in many ways. The severity and have the potential to cause long- and absorption. Floating oil can
of the injury depends on the type and term contamination. contaminate plankton, which includes
quantity of oil spilled, the season and algae, fish eggs, and the larvae of
weather, the type of shoreline, and the various invertebrates. Fish that feed
type of waves and tidal energy in the on these organisms can subsequently
area of the spill. become contaminated. Larger animals
in the food chain, including bigger
Oil can be categorized into five groups, fish, birds, terrestrial mammals, and
ranging from very light to very heavy even humans may then consume
oils. Most oil has a density less than contaminated organisms.
water, so it floats. Oil tends to spread
into a thin layer on the water surface as Pool of oil on a heavily impacted Initially, oil has the greatest impacts on
a sheen. Once in the water, oil undergoes beach, Prince William Sound, AK. species that utilize the water surface,
weathering, a process that describes NOAA such as waterfowl and sea otters, and
the physical, chemical, and biological species that inhabit the nearshore
Medium oils (most crude oils) are less environment. Although oil causes
changes that occur when oil interacts
likely to mix with water and can cause immediate effects throughout the entire
with the environment.
severe and long-term contamination to spill site, it is the external effects of oil
Weathering reduces the more toxic intertidal areas. Medium oils can also on larger wildlife species that are often
elements in oil products over time, as severely impact waterfowl and fur- immediately apparent.
exposure to air, sunlight, wave and bearing marine mammals.
tidal action, and certain mircoscopic Plants
Heavy oils (heavy crude, No. 6 fuel oil Marine algae and seaweed responds
organisms degrades and/or disperses
and Bunker C) do not readily mix with variably to oil, and oil spills may result
oil. Weathering rates depend on
water and have far less evaporation in die-offs for some species. Algae
factors such as type of oil, weather,
and dilution potential. These oils tend may die or become more abundant in
temperature, and the type of shoreline
to weather slowly. Heavy oil can cause response to oil spills. Although oil can
and bottom that occur in the spill area.
severe long-term contamination of prevent the germination and growth
Types of Oil intertidal areas and sediments. Heavy of marine plants, most vegetation,
Very light oils (jet fuel, gasoline) are oils have severe impacts on waterfowl including kelp, appears to recover after
highly volatile and evaporate quickly. and fur-bearing marine mammals. cleanup.
Very light oils are one of the most Cleanup of heavy oil is difficult and
acutely toxic oils and generally affect usually long-term.
sensitive to oil toxins. attributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Birds and Mammals Habitat


Physical contact with oil destroys the Oil has the potential to persist in the
insulation value of fur and feathers, environment long after a spill event and
causing birds and fur-bearing mammals has been detected in sediment 30 years
to die of hypothermia. In cold climates, after a spill. Oil spills may cause shifts in
an inch diameter oil drop can be enough population structure, species abundance
to kill a bird. Heavily oiled birds can and diversity, and distribution. Habitat
loose their ability to fly and their loss and the loss of prey items also have
buoyancy, causing drowning. the potential to affect fish and wildlife
populations.
In efforts to clean themselves, birds
and sea otters ingest and inhale oil.
Ingestion can kill animals immediately,
but more often results in lung, liver, and
kidney damage and subsequent death.
Seals and sea lions may be exposed to
oil while breathing or resting at the
Oily sheen in the intertidal habitat water’s surface or through feeding on
with aquatic plants following the contaminated species.
Exxon Valdez spill.
Long-term or chronic effects on Oiled sea otter, Prince William sound,
Invertebrates birds and marine mammals are less AK USFWS
Oil can be directly toxic to marine understood, but oil ingestion has been
invertebrates or impact them through shown to cause suppression to the
physical smothering, altering metabolic immune system, organ damage, skin Oil remains in the environment long
and feeding rates, and altering shell irritation and ulceration, damage to the after a spill event, especially in areas
formation. These toxic effects can be adrenal system, and behavioral changes. sheltered from weathering processes,
both acute (lethal) and chronic (sub- Damage to the immune system can such as the subsurface sediments
lethal). Intertidal benthic (bottom lead to secondary infections that cause under gravel shorelines, and in some
dwelling) invertebrates may be death and behavioral changes may affect soft substrates. However, pelagic and
especially vulnerable when oil becomes an individual’s ability to find food or offshore communities are fairly resilient
highly concentrated along the shoreline. avoid predators. Oil also affects animals and rebound more quickly than inshore
Additionally, sediments can become in non-lethal ways such as impairing habitats. Although oil is still present
reservoirs for the spilled petroleum. reproduction. in the sediment and coastal areas 15
Some benthic invertebrates can survive years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill
exposure, but may accumulate high in Prince William Sound, Alaska, some
levels of contaminants in their bodies wildlife populations have recovered. It
that can be passed on to predators. is believed that continued effects will
most likely be restricted to populations
Fish that reside or feed in isolated areas that
Fish can be impacted directly through contain oil.
uptake by the gills, ingestion of oil or
oiled prey, effects on eggs and larval The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
survival, or changes in the ecosystem responds to spills to minimize impacts
that support the fish. Adult fish may Oiled loon, Prince William Sound, AK. to trust resources and continues its
experience reduced growth, enlarged work long after a spill event. The
livers, changes in heart and respiration Avian and mammalian scavengers Service continues assess and monitor
rates, fin erosion, and reproductive such as ravens, bald eagles, and arctic the damage to habitat and wildlife and
impairment when exposed to oil. Oil foxes are also exposed to oil by feeding attempts to minimize the long-term
has the potential to impact spawning on carcasses of contaminated fish and effects on new generations of wildlife.
success, as eggs and larvae of many fish wildlife. Direct mortality and reduced
species, including salmon, are highly reproduction in bald eagles were

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service For more information, contact: Visit the Contaminant Program home page:
1 800/344 WILD U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/
http://www.fws.gov Regional Spill Response Coordinator contaminants/index.htm
1011 E. Tudor Road Anchorage, Alaska 99503
907/786 3598 December 2004