Gulf Oil Leak: Water Pollution Effects on Wildlife

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Water pollution effects on wildlife due to the gulf oil leak can have serious long-term consequences.

The recent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico caused a lot of apprehension about its short-term and long-term water pollution effects. Various approaches were undertaken to plug the leak and reduce the impact of the oil on sea surface and the coasts. Robots were dispersed to cap leaking oil pipes, ships were dispatched to spray oil dispersants, BP pumped mud-like fluids into a well to plug the leak, and some experts even suggest nukes to melt the rock overlying the source of oil.

Despite these efforts, it appears that it will take considerable time before the gulf oil leak is contained. According to some experts, attempts to plug the gulf oil leak will persist even until Christmas time.

Harm to Wildlife

This means that oil plumes on sea surface will continue to pose harm to the environment, especially to wildlife that depend partly or wholly on the productivity of the sea. Water pollution effects due to gulf oil pollution are a cause of concern. There is a growing anger on the failure to contain the impact of the gulf oil spill as signs of wildlife dying due to the leak gradually sets in.

The evidence of water pollution effects on wildlife due to gulf oil leak are surfacing in the internet. Pictures and videos of wildlife covered in black, sticky oil proliferate despite apparent attempts by those responsible to play down the environmental impacts of the gulf oil leak.

Bird with Oil

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

After more than a month since the spill started, wildlife officials reported that 491 birds, 227 turtles and 27 mammals have been collected dead along the Gulf Coast. This number, however, could not be attributed solely to the gulf oil leak because among the dead birds, only 28 or 5.7% were visibly oiled. A further 66 or 13.4% visibly oiled birds were rescued alive.


It is possible that the gulf oil leak is killing the phytoplankton, the basic producer in the marine food chain. According to Joye, the oxygen levels near the deep-water plumes are lower than normal, suggesting dead plankton draw out the oxygen due to decomposition. As a result, bigger marine animals depending on the productivity of the plankton will have no food available. Food chain collapse might result if the situation goes on.

But how can oil specifically affect wildlife? Here are water pollution effects on wildlife due to oil pollution:

Water Pollution Effect on Birds

Sea birds which are attracted to schools of fish may dive through oil slicks. This will endanger them as they will get coated with oil and can no longer fly. They would sink or drown because oiled feathers weigh more and their buoyancy is affected. Also, hypothermia (or lowered body temperature) may result in birds because the waterproofing and insulation properties of their feathers are affected.

Water Pollution Effects on Marine Mammals

Marine mammals become easy prey to predators if oil sticks on their bodies. This makes it hard for them to escape. Fur seal pups’ flippers may stick to their bodies that will cause them to drown. Hypothermia can also set in the fur seal pups because the insulation of their woolly fur is compromised. Also, seal pups swim in tidal pools along rocky coasts allowing oil to linger in their bodies. Sticky oil will alienate and starve the seal pups from their mothers because it disguises scent that identifies each fur seal from another. Dugongs will have difficulty eating seagrasses due to oil sticking to the sensory hairs around their mouths.

Large mammals like the baleen whale that feed by skimming the sea surface will be affected. Filtering the water will absorb oil detrimental to itself and to its calf. This is also true to dolphins as they spend a considerable time on sea water surface.

Water Pollution Effects on Fish

Some fish are attracted to oil because it looks like floating food. Oil will congest their gills and prevent effective regulation of water through their gills. As a result, fish will die. Further, studies of dead herring after the Exxon-Valdez spill found that parasites that normally lived in the fish's stomach migrated to the muscle tissue. This weakened its immune system thereby causing reproductive problems. Herring eggs exposed to oil died.

In general, aside from the direct coating effect of the gulf oil leak to wildlife, this can also lead to poisoning in the long-term through the processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. This will cause interference in the breeding cycles of marine animals and ultimately threaten the overall wildlife population.


Australian Maritime Safety Authority

Venice, M., Gorman, S. and P. Fletcher, 2010. Fact box: Gulf oil spill impacts fisheries, wildlife, tourism.


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