Oil Slick is Shroud for Birds

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"Oil Slick is Shroud for Birds"

Newspaper article

By: Irston R. Barnes

Date: July 22, 1962

Source: Barnes, Irston R. "Oil Slick is Shroud for Birds." The Washington Post, July 22, 1962.

About the Author: Irston R. Barnes (1904–1988), at the time that his article appeared in the Washington Post, was the chairman of the board of directors of the Audubon Naturalist Society, a post he maintained from 1961 to 1968. Previous to this position, Barnes was president of the Audubon Naturalist Society (which, after 1960, was called the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia) from 1946 to 1961. He was also the president of the Potomac Valley Conservation and Recreation Council and an economic adviser to the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board.


In his 1962 article, Barnes wrote about the serious negative consequences to seabirds with respect to the dumping of petroleum products (such as oil) and byproducts by ships while at sea. The intentional dumping of oil while at sea is commonly done by the flushing out of oil tankers with sea water, but it can also be done by the dumping of used crankcase oil, the pumping out of oily wastes from bilges, and the careless disposing of oil products and byproducts by such sources as refineries, water recreational users, and general consumers. Illegal dumpers take the chance of being fined, imprisoned, or other such penalties in order to eliminate the cost necessary to properly dispose and decompose their waste oil. If caught dumping oil off of Canadian waters, for example, the captain and the owners of a tanker can be fined under the Canada Shipping Act a maximum of one million dollars; however the largest fine ever recorded was $125,000 and the average fine is about $21,000.

Ocean dumping of oil—which was legal in 1962 if performed beyond 50 miles (80 kilometers) of a coast—negatively affects sea birds because released oil remains floating on the surface of the water, often traveling within the 50-mile limit of coastlines, and sometimes even washing up onto shores. When sea birds come into contact with this discarded oil, even the smallest, dime-sized amount can kill a bird by breaking down its ability to waterproof and insulate itself (so that the bird dies from hypothermia, or exposure to the cold weather); removing its ability to stay buoyant (so that the bird drowns); interfering with its ability to fly (so it is unable to eat, eventually resulting in starvation); being swallowed or inhaled by the bird (which introduces toxic compounds that can damage the bird's liver, kidneys, intestines, lungs, and other body organs); or interfering with its ability to reproduce (by reducing the number of eggs, thinning the shell of eggs, allowing oil to soak into eggs and killing the embryo, or causing abnormalities in developing chicks).


IF YOU HAVE been swimming at the ocean this summer or walking along the beach, you have very likely picked up a glob of oil on your feet. It was not easily removed; it could not be washed away, and rubbing was difficult after the oil was mixed with water. If your experience matched mine, you probably had to resort to cleaning fluid to get rid of the oil.

Did you give a thought to how the oil got on the beach? The most serious and most common source is the flushing out of oil tankers with sea water. A second common source is the dumping of old crankcase oil and the pumping of oily wastes from bilges.

But careless handling of oil or wastes by pleasure craft and spillage from shore refineries are also possible sources.

WHERE DID the oil enter the sea? Not necessarily near the beach where you were "oiled." Oil floats on the water indefinitely; in one experiment, oil floated on a tank of water for 18 months.

Oil may travel far with ocean and coastal currents. In one experiment at sea in 1926–7 by the United States, a discharge of oil was traced 90 miles in 72 hours. In the Red Sea, oil has been detected 500 miles from its point of discharge.

A Bureau of Mines report in 1926 established that fuel oils, when agitated by sea water, form a thick emulsion of oil, water and air. The emulsion continues to float for months, being very viscous and having the quality of a heavy grease. This is the consistency often encountered on the beach.

OIL POLLUTION is one of the most serious, most widespread and most cruel causes of death among sea birds of all kinds. There is no more unhappy experience for those who enjoy bird watching than to come upon dead or dying oil-smeared birds lying on the beach or struggling in the water. It is too late to do anything for them; they are fated for a slow, starving death.

A bird that gets oiled tries to preen the oil off its feathers, accomplishing nothing but ingesting the oil. Sea birds heavily smeared on their wings are unable to fly. They are also unable to dive. They are as completely crippled as though they had been shot.

A bird need not be completely smeared with oil to be doomed. The sea birds depend on the insulation of their feathers to protect them from the cold and on the abundance of their feathers to enable them to swim. A small patch of oil, only an inch in diameter, is enough to kill a murre by destroying insulating air pockets in the down so that the bird dies of exposure. It does not take much oil to make it difficult for the bird to remain afloat, and many thousands are believed to drown at sea.

SOME BIRDS are particularly susceptible to oil at sea. An oil slick has the same appearance as a school of small fish coming to the surface. Gannets and murres often dive or fly directly into the oiled area.

All of the sea-going ducks are victims, the elder ducks and old squaws being particularly exposed. The little dovkies also suffer heavy mortality from oil pollution.

All of the gulls are likely to be victims, although their dispersed flocks make it unlikely that any large number will be killed at one time. A few such birds are encountered on almost any winter trip to the ocean.

THE SERIOUSNESS of oil pollution of the sea has been recognized in an international convention that forbids the dumping of oil within 50 miles of the coast of any nation adhering to the convention. Some of the important shipping nations have not yet adhered to the convention; their ships continue to dump their oil wastes anywhere.

A convention that permits dumping of oil at sea, any where, is a completely inadequate solution. Oil floating at sea moves with the winds and the currents, with no respect for 50-mile limits. And the sea-birds likewise get into oil beyond the protected zone.

The only solution is an international convention preventing the dumping of oil anywhere at sea.


Over forty years after Barnes wrote the article "Ocean Oil Slick Is Shroud for Birds," the dumping of oil into the ocean is still a very serious pollution and conservation problem. In Canadian waters, one of the world's primary oil transportation routes, oil pollution is conservatively estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year. Both the World Wildlife Fund and the Memorial University of Newfoundland estimate that well over 300,000 seabirds are killed off the southeastern coast of Canada each year, a number greater than the number of birds killed by the much-publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster when the ship ran aground on the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Due to articles such as the one written by Barnes in 1962, many new ways have been developed to catch illegal ocean oil dumping. Members of the Canadian government search with pollution patrol aircraft within its Exclusive Economic Zone, an area 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) off both its eastern and western coasts. Unfortunately, this huge area makes it very expensive to patrol, and very unlikely that a polluting ship will even be seen, especially at night when aircraft cannot be used.

Among high-technology methods used to catch oil dumping violators are earth-orbiting satellites that monitor the movements of ships and detect the different types of motion in the water; specifically, those caused by oil. For instance, since September 2002, environmental groups in Canada have been working alongside the Canadian Space Agency to monitor the Atlantic coast with the earth-observation RADARSAT satellite, as part of the program called Integrated Satellite Targeting of Polluters.

In addition, scientists within the Canadian Wildlife Service and other organizations have been able to match oil found on birds with the dumped oil once located on a particular ship. Legislation—including the Canada Shipping Act, the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Canada Wildlife Act—help to control such illegal oil dumping at sea. Educational programs have been created to educate ship crews of the extensive damage done to birds and animals by ocean oil dumping.

Using such methods, it has become easier for countries to enforce ocean oil dumping laws and to catch offenders. However, such enforcement remains difficult, with the responsibility still largely resting with each tanker captain to obey local, national, and international environmental laws associated with ocean dumping.



National Research Council. Oil in the Sea III. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2003.


Wells, P.G. "Oil and Seabirds—The Imperative for Preventing and Reducing the Continued Illegal Oiling of the Seas by Ships." Marine Pollution Bulletin 42, no. 4 (2001): 251-252.

Web sites

"How Oil Pollution Affects Birds and Other Wildlife." Space for Species. 〈http://www.spaceforspecies.ca/meeting_place/news/features/oil_pollution_effects.htm〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

"What is an Oil Spill?." Space for Species. 〈http://www.spaceforspecies.ca/meeting_place/news/features/oil_pollution_oilspills.htm〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

"Wildlife and Nature." Environment Canada. 〈http://www.atl.ec.gc.ca/wildlife〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

"World Oil Pollution: Causes, Prevention and Clean-Up." Oceanlink. 〈http://oceanlink.island.net/oceanmatters/oil%20pollution.html〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).