Oil spills and their effect on the ocean
From 1970 to 2009, approximately 5,65 million tons of oil has been spilt in marine waters. Oil spilled can be a variety of materials, for example crude oil and refined petroleum products such as diesel fuel or gasoline (statistics only include shipping spills that happened accidently). These figures do not include oil spills of less than 7 000 tonnes, which means that the actual amount of oil spilt up until December 2009 is far more than 5,65 million tons. By Hermien Roelvert
Luckily, the number of oil spills has declined at a steady pace from 1970 until now. Although this is good news, it's still taking its toll on the marine environment if you think of the strain the ocean has to endure because of other forms of pollution (such as sewage and toxic waste) and over fishing or climate change...
If we think of an oil spill, we imagine images of oil-covered penguins being washed by volunteers. But that is unfortunately not the extent of the damaging effect that oil slicks have on the marine environment. Apart from the many furry animals like penguins and seals that drown because of this disastrous occurrence, other fish and sea birds also come short. Marine animals can suffer in a number of ways caused by oil in the water. Apart from drowning and suffocation, animals and fish can become poisoned or consume some of the oil which can cause slow and painful deaths.
In 2000 the world saw the greatest coastal bird crisis due to the MV Treasure sinking 8km off Table Bay between Dassen and Robben Island, oiling more than 20 000 African penguins. A massive capture of non-oiled penguins was launched in conjunction with the rehabilitation of the oiled penguins, and this resulted in 19 500 penguins being successfully relocated without oil contamination. (The number of African penguins worldwide is estimated at 180 000 and this number is becoming less and less). More than 90% of the oiled birds were rehabilitated and released. According to the International Bird Rescue Research Centre, the logistics on caring for over 20 000 birds was monumental. The penguins consumed over 400 tonnes of fish, and furthermore, 7 000 tonnes of beach sand was brought in for the temporary pens and 302 25-litre jugs of soap were used in the cleaning process. The rehabilitation efforts lasted for more that 12 weeks and the total cost of this spill operation amounted to more than R50 million. The scary part is that the MV Treasure spilled only 1 300 tonnes of bunker oil...
This is the effort and money that goes into only one oil spill. What about all the other sea creatures that were affected by that incident? We will never know the real extent of damage to the environment, because unlike the penguins and other sea birds that we can see and which are immediately in trouble, the effect of something like this will only be seen much later and probably much too late when it has snowballed out of control and we are no longer able to fix the problem. It really doesn't matter who is at fault during such an incident – the damage is already done. We can only minimise the effect.
We haven't even touched on the subject of illegal oil dumping (which occurs on a regular basis and is extremely difficult to control) or oil rigs where their oil leaks into the ocean. Last year, the world witnessed Australia's third largest oil spill – it started on August 21 and the blow-out at the Montara well caused spillage of 2 000 barrels of oil per day into the Timor Sea. This continued for 10 weeks.
The fact of the matter is that we have created a world that relies on the black gold almost more than air. The world today uses more than 11 billion litres of oil every day! The USA and China are the top oil consumers and South Africa is also amongst the top 50 oil using countries. Tankers and barges will not stop cruising the oceans, and new sea-frontiers are being explored for bigger and better oil wells. And sadly there will be more oil spills. With that knowledge, we need to be prepared to give a helping hand as soon as there is danger in our waters. The quicker the oil can be removed from the water, the better the chances for that area and its marine environment. Unfortunately it is our responsibility – we cannot point any fingers. It is our everyday reliance on oil – to get to work and back, to create heat, to be entertained – that creates this demand.
We need to find a solution to the problem that we have created. Or at the very least we can be pro-active and help. One thing we can definitely do is to put pressure on our national authorities to move the 'Environment-folder' higher up on the priority-list within government. That is something we seriously need to think about.