Shipping problems: Steady release of oil and chemicals

As bad as oil spills can be, they account for only around 12% of the oil that enters the marine environment each year.

 / ©: WWF
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According to a study by the US National Research Council, 46% of the oil entering the oceans come from marine transportation, either through accidents or deliberate discharges.

For example, many ships illegally discharge bilge oil (a mixture of water, oil, lubricants, and other pollutants that collect in a ship's hold) before entering a port as this is cheaper than disposing of it legally at the port.

Dumped bilge oil accounts for nearly 10% of all oil entering the oceans each year. On the eastern coast of Canada alone, dumped bilge oil kills at least 300,000 seabirds each year - more than the total number killed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.

Shipping activities also accidentally release oil. Ports where trans-shipment of oil takes place, for example, suffer from a chronic release of oil through ship leakage, ship maintenance, or mishandling. This problem is often ignored, despite the fact that its cumulative effects may have significant effects on the surrounding ecosystem.

Many chemicals used in shipping operations also enter the ocean
These include cleaning agents, chemicals for water treatment, and chemicals in refrigerating equipment and fire-extinguishers.

Some of these chemicals are toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative. This means they do not break down very readily in the environment, are absorbed by marine animals, and increase in concentration up the food chain. People also become contaminated by eating contaminated fish.

Evidence is mounting that a number of man-made chemicals can cause serious health problems - including cancer, damage to the immune system, behavioural problems, and reduced fertility.

Oil and seabirds: a deadly mix

It's fairly clear how an oil slick can kill a seabird: if a bird lands in the slick, its feathers become coated in oil, affecting the bird’s buoyancy and ability to fly.
But even just one small drop is enough to kill.

Oil destroys the insulation properties of a seabird's feathers. Bone-chilling ocean water soaks through to its skin and the bird suffers from hypothermia and starvation.

Oil is also a poison that, when ingested, can kill outright or slowly, through liver damage or blindness.

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