Right now there are three major oil spills still underway, causing mayhem for those trying to salvage and restore what they can of vulnerable wildlife habitats. The most recent is the Sundarbans spill in Bangladesh which began in 2014. Another is the 2013 Estancia Iloilo Province, Philippines spill. But the 2004 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has been plagued by leaks for over a whopping 4000 days with estimates from just last year expecting it to last for another century.
The 1996 Sea Empress spill in Pembrokeshire has provided some of the most shocking images of the impacts these incidents can have on UK seabirds. Now, 20 years later, it has been revealed that populations have recovered after taking a devastating hit. While many in good faith tried their best to save as many birds as possible, rescue attempts were largely unsuccessful with RSPB figures showing that despite treatment and rehabilitation only 0.6% of cleaned birds survived the next year. On average, rehabilitated guillemots only survived for seven days.
Oil spills are massive long-term economic blows, particularly due to the effort and time that goes into restoring the affected areas and their wildlife population. But when compared to other disasters, two decades is a “remarkable” speed for populations such as the Common Scoter duck, which lost a third of its population in 1996, to recover, according to Dr Malcolm Smith. As a former chief scientist for the Countryside Council for Wales, Smith also suggested that attempts to save birds were in vain. He makes a fair point in saying:
“Basically, we discovered most them die after you have released them. The lesson from that, harsh though it is, it is kinder to put most badly oiled seabirds out of their misery when they are picked up.
“By euthanizing them quickly, you are not putting them through the complete trauma of treatment, only to release them to their death where they cannot feed themselves or survive.”
Some species do respond well to cleaning. Swans, for example. But it is perhaps more important to rid the sea and beaches of the oil and working to restore the habitat itself as soon as possible, rather than saving individual birds unlikely to survive treatment in order to ensure the survival of the greater population of each species.
But what does this mean for the response action to future disasters? If more effort and resources go into restoring the mildly affected birds and the habitats, does it mean that hurt populations will recover faster? However, we must remember that each species will respond to oil spills and subsequent treatments in their own ways. And each spill is its own incident, its behaviour and impact subject to numerous factors including the distance to the shoreline, wind directions, breeding times, etc. For the people of Pembrokeshire, the day the beaches turned black is still a vivid memory – a scar now healed, but still something to learn from.
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