Oil Spill Facts

How Oil Can Harm Wildlife

Oil can harm wildlife through both internal and external exposure. Depending on how much oil is consumed, oil can be poisonous, and can cause stomach and intestinal disorders, and liver and kidney damage. Oil can destroy red blood cells, and reduce reproductive success at sufficiently high exposures. Through external contact, oil can cause skin and eye irritation, smother and drown animals, and cause dehydration due to a lack of uncontaminated water. Oil can coat fur and feathers, reducing the ability of birds and mammals to maintain their body temperatures, leading to hypothermia and death.

Most oil floats on water. Consequently the animals that are most vulnerable to oil contamination are the ones that spend a great deal of time at the sea surface and rely on their fur and feathers to stay warm, such as sea otters, fur seals, polar bears, and marine birds. Oil that washes up on beaches can affect intertidal organisms such as clams, crabs, and snails that live in those regions. Oil spills can also harm fish when released into shallow water, and has been known to cause mass die-offs of fish and fish eggs.

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How Oiled Wildlife Can Harm Humans

Oiled wildlife can pose a risk to human safety when improperly handled or consumed in sufficient quantities. Oil contains many harmful chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and can be toxic if ingested in sufficient quantities. When wild animals are exposed to oil over an extended period of time, they retain some chemicals while others are metabolized and excreted.

It is important to inspect shellfish, fish, birds, and marine mammals for oil contamination before consuming them. You can detect oil on food by visually inspecting and smelling for oil. If you see or smell oil on any wildlife or see it anywhere on the beach or in the water it is important that you report it so the authorities can determine where the oil came from and if there is an active leak, and they can begin cleanup procedures if necessary.

Both state and federal governments have protocols to test and monitor the safety of seafood after a significant oil spill. Following an oil spill be sure to inspect marine foods before consuming them and seek updates from authorities on the safety of the seafood. Because so many spills occur in Alaska each year, some of which go unreported, it is vital that subsistence and recreational hunters and fishermen remain alert for oiled wildlife. To report any oil found, or an oil spill, follow the guidelines on the Oil and Hazardous Spills and Wildlife in Alaska page.

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