Effects of Oil Spills on Marine Life

10 Top Effects of Oil Spills on Marine Life

The Effects of Oil Spills on Marine Life not only kill/destroy animals but can also distort their physiology and behavior in the long run; It is, therefore, necessary to understand the consequences of oil spills on marine life as they are part of the ecosystem.

The recognition of oil spills has been in existence and many of us might not understand the gravity of these impacts to our environment. The contamination of oil spills is far worse on the sea than on land as the spill can spread faster to hundreds of miles on the sea. 

Let’s engage our minds a bit. We are aware that the sea/ ocean supplies 50 percent of oxygen to the earth which enables the ecosystem to function correctly therefore, it is safe to say that the marine environment is of great importance to us. Now what do you think will happen when this same ocean gets affected by oil spills?

Of course, their contribution to the ecosystem will be distorted. For instance, our weather conditions is being controlled by the ocean as most of the rain that falls on land starts from the ocean. Thus, if all these processes were to be disturbed by oil spills, there would be a slight or massive( as the case may be) change in the climatic processes on Earth.

Furthermore, in order for balance to remain in the ecosystem, the ocean needs to be safeguarded. However, maintaining the ocean seems quite impossible as human activity is constantly polluting marine life. 

Additionally, there are lots of both plants and animals living in the ocean, even the ones that are yet to be discovered. These lives are also part of the food chain and are key to a balanced ecosystem.

Lots of people may think that life in the ocean is quite different from life on land and doesn’t affect one another. On the contrary, they are linked to each other.

Therefore, in this guide, we will be emphasizing the effect of oil spills on marine life as well as strategies for mitigating oil spill effects on the marine environment.

Shall we?

But First,

Before we dive into the main discussion which is the effect of oil spills on marine life, let’s go through the basics first to enable us to understand the gravity they pose to marine life properly.

What Is an Oil Spill?

An oil spill is a type of pollution whereby crude oil or petroleum is introduced into the environment due to the activities of human beings.

So how does an oil spill come about?

As stated earlier, the oil spill is a result of human activities. Therefore, a spill can occur when there is a leakage where the oils are kept.  These oils can either be transported via land or sea to industries that use oil for the production of gasoline, paint, soap, etc. 

The term “oil spills” basically refers to marine spills in which the oil is released into the deep ocean.  Examples of oil spills include kerosene, lubricating oil, diesel fuels, gasoline, hydraulic oil, and jet fuels, are included in the oil spills.

The Different Types Of Oil Spills

There are different classes of oil spills ranging from the most toxic to the less toxic, from heavy to light oil spills. 

Also, as there are different classes or kinds of oil spills, they have different methods of cleaning as well as different negative impacts on marine life.

Unfortunately, when an oil spill occurs, the process of cleaning up can take months and possibly years.

The following are the different types of oil spills.

#1.Class A oil 

This class of oil is the most dangerous oil as it is very light and spreads so fast. It is a toxic oil that has a pungent smell and can even soak into the soil. They are very dangerous and have a negative effect on marine life. Good examples of oil under this class are gasoline, jet oil, and crude oil.

#2. Class B Oil

The oil in this category is less dangerous compared to the one in class A.  However, they are not adhesive and can result in long-term contamination. They are also highly combustible. A good example of class b oil is kerosene.

#3. Class C Oil

This type of oil is heavy and thick. They cannot easily saturate or dissolve in soil or water. They seriously contaminate the environment and leave behind a sticky coating on the surface. This category includes bunker B and bunker C oil as well as different types of crude oil.

#4. Class D Oil

Class D oils are referred to as solid oils. When these Lila are heated, they become less dangerous. However, the cleanup process is quite impossible.

#5. Non-petroleum oil 

This type of oil is a lightweight type of oil that readily infiltrates into the ground and water and creates havoc. This category includes synthetic oils made from fats found in both plants and animals.

What Are The Causes Of Oil Spills

  • Natural causes: Most times, this oil may leak out as a result of the deterioration of sedimentary rocks buried deep in the ocean. At times, it can also be a result of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
  • Human causes: This is just a result of man’s carelessness or lack of proper carriage of these oils during transportation as well as lack of proper management of the vessels conceding the oil. 

Effects Of Oil Spills On Marine Life

The marine environment suffers the consequences of human action. There is a reduction in the water’s ability to absorb sunlight since it’s being covered by oil spills. 

Hence, there is a decline in the ability to both store oxygen and the quantity of oxygen in the water. Thus, there is a negative impact on marine life due to decreased oxygen.

Due to water pollution, immunity of the marine animals reduces leading to their death. The reproductive capacity of the females diminishes due to pollution which will lead to the extinction of the species. 

There are different types of effects of oil spills on Marine life and we shall look at them one after the other.

#1. Physical Effects

In little quantities, the oil can cause short-term physical harm to animals such as skin irritation. Some of these chemicals can be harmful to the body, so if in contact with the animals, it could affect their fins which control their movement. Therefore, it could affect their locomotion.

#2. Biological Effects

When marine life is being exposed to oil spills, these chemicals can distort the biological makeup of the marine animals. 

For example, oil spills can bring about a change or decline in their immunity level which can lead to the death of animals. Also, with respect to reproductive or developmental damage, it can reduce the ability of the females to reproduce and, in the long run, lead to the extinction of that particular species.

Furthermore, animals such as dolphins/whales that make use of blowholes for breathing can have issues breathing as the oil can block their blowholes.

Plants too under the ocean are not left behind in this contamination. As stated earlier, there are some oils that get soaked/ mixed with soil. When the oil infiltrates into the soil, it affects the growth of these plants.

Basically, it affects the food chain under the sea and even down to animals on land. Also, fish and sea turtle embryos may grow more slowly than normal, leading to lower hatching rates and developmental impairments.

Fur-bearing species like sea otters and birds with water-repellent feathers lose their capacity to insulate against the elements when exposed to oil. Birds and mammals will get hypothermia if they lack the ability to shake off water and protect themselves from the cold water.

Additionally, young sea turtles may get caught in oil after mistaking it for food. Oil can be inhaled by dolphins and whales and can negatively affect the lungs, immune system, and reproductive. Whenever animals and birds try to clean themselves, they frequently consume oil, which is poisonous to them.

Furthermore, adult fish might develop less slowly, have enlarged livers, alter heart and respiration rates, erode their fins, and have difficulties reproducing when exposed to oil. 

Therefore, oil can render fish and shellfish dangerous for human consumption.

#3. Thermal Effect

Thermal effects occur when oil spills release thermal energy, which can increase water temperature and create an imbalance in the marine ecosystem. As stated earlier, most of the rain that falls starts from the ocean. 

What happens when the sea can’t get enough sunlight as a result of blockage by these oils? We already know the answer to this. That’s right, it will affect the weather system.

#4. Chemical Effect

The occurrence of oil spills on marine life interrupts the chemical makeup of life in the ocean.  

Mitigation Measures

Although it is almost not easy to get rid of oil spills, we can try to lessen the pollution from happening. Some of the ways of reducing the risk of this happening include; 

  •  Setting regulations and policies
  • Actively informing and educating the public on the need/importance to protect marine lives.
  • Proper management/maintenance of vessels conveying the oils.
  • Development of technology that can detect oil spills.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Does Oil Spills Last Long?

Yes! Oil spills can stay for many years. However, it depends on the type of oil and the quantity of oil spills.

What Does It Take To Clean Up An Oil Spill?

The cleaning-up process of oil spills can be very expensive and takes time to be carried out. They are, however, carried out by individuals that are trained and skilled for it.


Oil spills pose a big threat to marine life and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This is because if neglected, not just the lives under the ocean will be affected negatively, but even animals on land. 

As a result of these oil spills, the species are forced to migrate and even this migration is based on survival as many might not make it. 

Therefore, it is our sole responsibility to safeguard life in the marine world by ensuring policies and regulations are made as well as educating the public about these negative effects of oil spills.

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