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- On January 15, 2022, Peru has witnessed one of the worst oil spills on its coasts, which affected 2 natural protected areas, with threatened marine fauna such as birds, penguins, otters and more than 1500 artisanal fishers who have seen their activities paralyzed.
- Ecological disasters like this are a call to evaluate the preventive measures that we as a country and civil society must take so that it never happens again.
The Peruvian sea is considered one of the most productive seas in the world, sustaining the livelihoods of thousands of families and hundreds of fishing communities. It contributes to the country's food security and produces billions of dollars in foreign exchange from exports. In addition, it is the habitat of more than a thousand species of fish and a great biodiversity of marine fauna. Their health and conservation depend mainly on the mitigation of their main threats and the development of sustainable economic activities.
Unfortunately, the Peruvian coast and sea are facing one of the biggest environmental disasters yet, the oil spill of an estimated volume that exceeds 500 thousand gallons, occurred from the La Pampilla Refinery S.A.A. , operated by Repsol Peru in the district of Ventanilla (Lima). As of January 23, 2022, OEFA had estimated that the disaster had affected more than 1.8 million m2 of beaches on the coastal strip between Callao and Chancay. It is also estimated that more than 7.1 million square meters of the sea have also been committed. This represents an area similar to a thousand times the National Stadium, only in the affected marine area. However, these estimates continue to rise as the distribution of crude oil continues to expand.
Oil spills are not new to the country, according to the report "The shadow of hydrocarbons in Peru" produced by Oxfam (2022), from 1997 to the first quarter of 2021, there have been 1002 spills nationwide, of which 56% occurred in the Amazon and about 40% on the marine coast. It should be noted that once a disaster of this type occurs, it is extremely difficult to combat, because of the viscous nature of the crude, which remains present for a long period in the marine environment, causing devastating effects to the ecosystem, its species, and the communities that depend on these resources.
What happens after an oil spill?
When oil is spilled into the ocean it usually floats and spreads rapidly across the surface of the water forming a thin layer. The nature and duration of the effects of an oil spill depend on a wide range of factors, including the amount and type of oil spilled, its behavior in the marine environment, the environmental conditions and physical characteristics of the site where the spill occurs, and the timing of the spill, among other factors.
The selection of appropriate cleaning techniques and the efficiency with which operations are carried out have a significant influence on the effects of a spill. That is why containment plans and rapid response measures are so important, as well as having sufficient capacity, infrastructure, resources, and equipment to deal with contingencies. In that sense, there are different mechanisms and tools to clean up a spill ranging from floating barriers, skimmers or boats that collect oil, chemicals that decompose oil, burning in situ, oil vacuum trucks, among others.
Effects on the marine ecosystem and fauna
Oil spills can be very harmful to the marine ecosystem and depending on the circumstances (where, when, and how the event occurs) thousands of marine animals can die or be affected in other ways. Among the main consequences of a spill in the marine ecosystem are: the suffocation of marine animals, impact on their physiological functions, ecological changes in the ecosystem and its species; occurrence of chemical toxicity that can lead to lethal effects; and the loss of habitat or refuge and the disappearance of ecologically important species.
The main marine fauna that is usually affected by oil spills in the ocean are birds, followed by otters, cetaceans, turtles, and mammals such as sea lions, among others. In the case of birds, when their feathers are greased with oil they lose their insulating capacity and buoyancy, causing the loss of body heat, ultimately causing hypothermia. Also, when the oil enters their nostrils and eyes, it generates stress affecting their ability to swim and dive, potentially causing drowning. Similarly, a bird when trying to clean the oil by grooming itself, is very likely to ingest the toxic crude, which can have serious intestinal affectations, leading to liver diseases, kidney diseases, among others.
In the case of whales, dolphins, and other cetaceans, when they come to the surface to breathe they come into contact with crude oil. Which can cause damage to the nasal tissue and eyes, causing suffocation. It should be noted that mammals that depend on fur to regulate their body temperature, such as sea otters, are the most vulnerable to oil, since they can die of hypothermia or overheating, depending on the season.
In the same way, it is a threat to reptiles such as sea turtles, where they can suffer from inflammation of the mucous membranes, increasing susceptibility to infections and causing more subtle damage to behavior, feeding, growth or reproductive functions.
Impact on fisheries and communities
An oil spill in the ocean affects or paralyzes the activities of fishers and other actors in the productive chain such as merchants and restaurants. Their traditional fishing areas can be reduced or lost and their fishing gear can get damaged. Commercially exploited species are exposed to the toxicity of oil which can generate suffocation and death, while pollution can make them unfit for human consumption. These situations generate important economic consequences for coastal communities, threatening their food security, since fish is an important source of protein in their diet.
Another important fact is the effect on consumers, who may become reluctant to buy seafood from an affected region and the loss of market confidence can result in an economic loss even if there is no real contamination of the product. It even affects fishers in other areas due to the low traceability of resources. That is why it is important to find out from official government sources such as the National Fisheries Health Agency (SANIPES), which is responsible for supervising the health and safety of fishery products. Its inspectors develop an analysis in the landings to ensure that the resources are suitable for human consumption, discarding those that are not fresh (they must smell of the sea, with firm skin, bulging eyes, reddish gills) or are contaminated (they should not smell of fuel or have stains).
On the other hand, it should be noted that damage to hydrobiological products can also be caused by the measures taken to combat an oil spill. For example, animals and plants that would not otherwise be affected by floating petrol may become contaminated due to exposure to hydrocarbon droplets suspended in the water column, especially if dispersants are used nearby. Aggressive or inappropriate cleaning techniques, such as indiscriminate washing with high pressure and/or hot water, can also adversely affect commercially exploited species and delay natural recovery.
It is also important to note spills cause long-term impacts and the recovery of the areas can take years. For example, algae and other organisms can accumulate minimal amounts of oil settled on the seafloor, which through the process of bioaccumulation can lead to the concentration of heavy metals in fish, even in the long term.
What can be done to prevent this situation?
Oil spills can be produced by different reasons, from equipment breakdowns, human error or lack of proper company oversights, to natural disasters, vandalism and illegal acts. Because oil and its derivatives can cause serious damage to the environment, every effort should be made to prevent a spill by:
- carrying out permanent monitoring of oil activities;
- maintaining public and updated contingency plans for oil companies;
- strengthening the mechanisms for auditing by competent authorities so that they are effective;
- ensuring that the necessary infrastructure, capacity and equipment are in place to deal with contingencies related to oil spills;
- identifying areas where oil activities should not be allowed because of the risk of spills (e.g. protected areas and their buffer zones);
- encouraging nations to transition to clean energy that replaces hydrocarbons.
It is important to highlight the urgency of establishing national plans that allow the energy transition to clean energy and strategies to promote its adoption. If citizens reduce their consumption and dependence on oil derivatives, the need to transport such products would be reduced, mitigating the risk of future spills.
Together for the Recovery of the Sea
More than 260 civil society organizations have come together with the aim of articulating efforts to jointly face the environmental emergency and provide support to the government.
The #RecuperoMiMar coalition aims to:
- join efforts to support the rescue of marine wildlife species;
- collect donations to finance the recovery of the marine ecosystem, fauna and affected fishing communities;
- seek international technical aid and generate the necessary incidence to solve this emergency, among others.
To contribute to this important work, go to: recuperomimar.com
©Daniela Freundt / WWF-Perú / January 19, Miramar, Ancon
© Daniela Freundt / WWF-Perú / January 22, Balneario de Ancón, Ancón
 ITOPF. Effects of Oil Pollution on the Marine Environment. Technical Information Paper. https://www.itopf.org/fileadmin/uploads/itopf/data/Documents/TIPS_TAPS_new/TIP_13_Effects_of_Oil_Pollution_on_the_Marine_Environment.pdf