RSPB
Skip navigation
Print page

Oil spills and pollution

M V Braer wrecked at Garthness, Shetland

Image: Chris Gomersall

Most pollution enters the sea via rivers from land-based sources but pollution also comes from offshore oil and gas platforms and from ships.

We work to reduce risks to seabirds from all forms of pollution, especially oil spills but also from non-oil products. 

These substances waterlog a bird's feathers so that it drowns, dies of cold or is poisoned by swallowing oil when trying to clean its plumage. Most pollution is accidental but some is deliberate, such as ships washing out their tanks at sea.

We work to influence Government departments and industry to act on their enforcement powers to reduce illegal oil spills so that birds and other wildlife are protected wherever possible.

If an oil spill does occur, we have an official part in the National Contingency Plan for Marine Pollution, including:

  • surveying any birds in the affected area and keeping a count of the bird casualties
  • advising on sensitive areas for birds and birds at risk from individual pollution incidents
  • advising the animal welfare organisations on the location of live oiled birds in need of cleaning and rehabilitation.  

We also try to stop the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) from giving licences to drill for oil or gas in areas of sea which are important for seabirds - such as close to nesting colonies or moulting areas. These areas are sensitive to the pollution, damage and disturbance that oil rigs can cause. 

Case Study: seabirds and PIBs - a sticky killer

In the early months of 2013, thousands of seabirds were washed ashore dead or dying along the south coast of England, covered in a form of a sticky, man-made substance called polyisobutylene (PIB).

The actual impact at sea was probably far greater. When coated in this substance, the birds couldn't fly or feed, leading to hypothermia, exhaustion, starvation and eventually death.

Under the international MARPOL Convention (which regulates marine pollution from ships), despite PIB products being considered to present a hazard to the marine environment, ships could legally discharge them into the sea in certain quantities, with conditions, when cleaning their tanks. This is what was thought to have happened.

It wasn't just environmental organisations that were concerned about the impacts of PIB.

We signed a powerful joint statement with the UK Chamber of Shipping (see right), supported by the ports and maritime business sectors, calling for an urgent review of PIB's legal discharge status, and for the UK Government to take a lead in taking this review forward. 

The pressure that the public, supported by the RSPB, other NGOs and MPs, put on the UK Government was key in getting a paper put to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in October 2013, proposing to reclassify the dangerous forms of PIB to ban their discharge. This was passed and is now in force, all within a year of the incidents themselves – a great success!

If you want to find out more, the RSPB has produced a briefing on PIB and its hazards to seabirds, which you can download to the right of this page. Also check our Safeguard our Sealife Blog.

What does the future hold?

In recent years there have been major improvements reducing these risks to seabirds and other marine life from pollution, including:

  • virtually all oil pollution in north-west European waters is now illegal
  • all UK ports and harbours must now have facilities for disposal of oily waste
  • since 1999, all ships are banned from discharging rubbish into the North-East Atlantic.  

However, But enforcement is still a problem in all these areas, so the Government must provide the necessary resources to enforcement bodies such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in order to ensure that these laws are observed in the seas around the UK.

The guidance on the roles and responsibilities of all organisations involved in responding to incidents must also be clearer.

We are also encouraging international governments to look at products such as palm oil and paraffin waxes, and stop them from being legally discharged in the same way as PIBs were.

The economic costs of cleaning these substances from beaches is huge, as are the potential effects on seabirds.