Sensitivity of Marine Habitats
The marine environment is made up of complex interrelations between plant and animal species and their physical environment. Harm to the physical environment will often lead to harm for one or more species in a food chain, which may lead to damage for other species further up the chain. Where an organism spends most of its time—in open water, near coastal areas, or on the shoreline—will determine the effects an oil spill is likely to have on that organism.
In open water, marine organisms such as fish and whales have the ability to swim away from a spill by going deeper in the water or further out to sea, reducing the likelihood that they will be harmed by even a major spill. Marine animals that generally live closer to shore, such as turtles, seals, and dolphins, risk contamination by oil that washes onto beaches or by consuming oil-contaminated prey. In shallow waters, oil may harm sea grasses and kelp beds that are used for food, shelter, and nesting sites by many different species.
Spilled oil and certain cleanup operations can threaten different types of marine habitats in different ways.
- Coral reefs are important nurseries for shrimp, fish, and other animals as well as recreational attractions for divers. Coral reefs and the marine organisms that live within and around them are at risk from exposure to the toxic substances within oil as well as smothering.
- Exposed sandy, gravel or cobbled beaches are usually cleaned by manual techniques. Although oil can soak into sand and gravel, few organisms live full-time in this habitat, so the risk to animal life or the food chain is less than in other habitats, such as tidal flats.
- Sheltered beaches have very little wave action to encourage natural dispersion. If timely cleanup efforts are not begun, oil may remain stranded on these beaches for years.
- Tidal flats are broad, low-tide zones, usually containing rich plant, animal, and bird communities. Deposited oil may seep into the muddy bottoms of these flats, creating potentially harmful effects on the ecology of the area.
- Salt marshes are found in sheltered waters in cold and temperate areas. They host a variety of plant, bird, and mammal life. Marsh vegetation, especially root systems, is easily damaged by fresh light oils.
- Mangrove forests are located in tropical regions and are home to a diversity of plant and animal life. Mangrove trees have long roots, called prop roots, that stick out well above the water level and help to hold the mangrove tree in place. A coating of oil on these prop roots can be fatal to the mangrove tree, and because they grow so slowly, replacing a mangrove tree can take decades.