(Trends Wide Español) — Hypothermic birds, poisoned turtles, suffocated fish – oil spills, with their toxic chemicals, can have deadly consequences for marine life.
Birds and fish have already begun to appear dead on the coast of California after the oil spill that happened on Saturday. So far it is unknown how many animals have died, although the director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which works in rescue efforts, said that the initial assessment indicates that the number of affected animals is less than was initially feared.
Oil can affect animals through internal exposure when inhaled or ingested, or through external exposure of the skin and eyes, explains the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Here, a review of what the impacts are and how you work to save them.
Seabirds and otters at risk of death from hypothermia
As most oil floats, the animals most affected by spills are those that are on the surface or on the coast if the oil makes its way to land, explains NOAA. Seabirds are the animals that die the most during most spills. Otters are also among the most affected.
When in contact with birds, oil destroys the feathers’ ability to repel water. In the case of mammals like sea otters, for example, it affects their ability to maintain body temperature, which depends on a clean coat. As a result, unable to repel water and insulate themselves from cold temperatures, these animals can die of hypothermia.
Turtles, endangered throughout their life cycle
Turtles inhabit different areas of the marine ecosystem during their life, and all of them can be affected by oil spills: the eggs hatch on the beach, when they are small they go into the water and grow between islands of sargassum, and when they are adults they return to the most superficial waters and there they spend most of the rest of life.
Turtles can hold their breath, but they usually come to the surface to breathe several times an hour and in those cases they come in contact again and again with the floating oil. They can inhale it, swallow it or get covered with these chemicals (if they are female, this can even affect the young later).
The youngest have it all worse: they almost never descend more than a few meters deep, so they are more exposed to oil and also currents and winds, according to NOAA, generally carry the hydrocarbons towards the areas where they are sargassum and these young specimens.
Oil can prevent turtles from breathing and hamper their heart function, causing problems swimming, feeding, migrating, mating, and even running away from predators. Plus, it can cause your temperature to rise to dangerous extremes. In fact, sea turtles that are completely covered in oil cannot survive without attention, says NOAA.
What happens to the fish?
After coming into contact with the oil, the growth of the fish may be reduced, the size of their livers increase and the heart and respiratory rate and reproduction may be altered, among other factors. Eggs and larvae are especially sensitive to the effects of spilled oil, according to NOAA. And even when the effects are not lethal, oil can make fish and shellfish unsafe for humans.
Also, some small fish and invertebrates can suffocate.
“Light” and “Heavy” Oils: Which are Worse for Animals?
Light oils, such as gasoline and diesel, do not tend to stay in the water for long because they evaporate relatively quickly. However, they pose two great dangers: on the one hand, some can explode, and on the other they are toxic: they can kill fauna and flora, and even represent a danger to humans.
On the other hand, there are heavy oils, such as those that supply ships, which can remain in the environment for months and even years if they are not cleaned. They are more persistent but less toxic than the others, according to NOAA. Their danger in the short term is that they can suffocate animals, while in the long term they can cause problems such as tumors. When after a few days they harden, and are similar to the asphalt of a road, it is likely that they will not harm the living beings in the environment.
Tasks to clean up spills can also harm animals
It’s not just the spill: Controlling the situation can also harm animals, for example using hot water or chemicals to remove the oil, explains NOAA. “The simple act of sending a team of cleaning workers to an area contaminated with oil can trample on sensitive organisms and mix the oil more deeply on a beach,” warns the agency.
How do you save a seabird covered in oil?
If you are in the area of a spill and you see an animal covered in oil, do not lift it yourself, authorities insist, because it can be dangerous for both you and the animal. This job requires training, so the best thing you can do is report the finding to the competent agencies or organizations. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network, for example, already has a specific number for the California spill. They are not accepting volunteers, but have more than 1,600 people specifically trained for the task.
When a bird is rescued after a spill, the first task is to stabilize it, since in many cases they suffer from temperature problems, have not eaten for days, are dehydrated and exhausted. Once they are stabilized, they can begin to be cleaned, a task whose duration depends on the size and amount of oil, but that on average takes about 45 minutes, according to experts from the International Bird Rescue organization.
The birds are not returned to a natural habitat immediately after cleaning them: usually the process can take at least five days, although most are in captivity on average seven days. The number depends on the damage they have: many times it is not just a matter of cleaning them, but that they ingested oil and then they must be cared for longer.
Before releasing them, they are tested to confirm that they can float and repel water (for this, the feathers must be aligned in such a way as to prevent leaks).
— Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) (@oiledwildlife) October 4, 2021