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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 such as factories. Oil pollution also comes from offshore oil and gas platforms and from ships.

We work to reduce risks to seabirds from pollution, especially oil spills but also from non-oil materials. Oil waterlogs a bird's feathers so that it drowns, dies of cold or is poisoned by swallowing oil when trying to clean its plumage. Most oil 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 danger area and keeping a count of the bird casualties of the spill 
  • 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 try to stop the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) from giving companies 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. We also comment on Environmental Impact Assessment statements for oil and gas developments to help reduce risks to important seabird areas.

Seabirds and PIB -  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 sticky, man-made substance called polyisobutene (or PIB). The actual impact at sea is likely to be far greater. When coated in this substance, the birds are prevented from flying or feeding, leading to hyperthermia, exhaustion, starvation and eventually death.

The source of the pollution has not yet been identified.  However, under the international MARPOL Convention (which regulates marine pollution from ships), despite PIB being considered to present a hazard to the marine environment, it is legal to discharge it directly into the sea in certain quantities, with conditions.

It’s our understanding that the tests on PIB, along with other similar substances, are only done in laboratory conditions and do not cover the full range of impacts on marine wildlife, including on seabirds. 

We also just don’t know how much PIB is released in small quantities every day as part of legal shipping operations. As such, we believe the risk of PIB is seriously underestimated and we are currently urging the Government to call on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to review the hazard classification of PIB, and implement regulations and a systematic monitoring programme that prevent any further tragic and wholly avoidable incidents like the one just witnessed.

It’s not just environmental organisations that are concerned about the impacts of PIB. We’ve signed a powerful joint statement with the UK Chamber of Shipping, 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. You can find a copy on this page under downloads (right).

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.

Pollution from rubbish 

It has been estimated that over 200,000 tonnes of marine litter is dumped annually into the North Sea. Studies in the Netherlands have shown that in the Southern North Sea, 98 per cent of fulmars have plastics in their stomachs (see the Save the North Sea project website).

Another place that litter can originate is from the seemingly harmless balloon release events

The sea also suffers from pollution by rubbish accidentally or deliberately disposed of from land or from ships or pleasure craft. Marine litter, especially plastic can be dangerous to sealife and seabirds through entanglement and ingestion, and in some cases can lead to death.

Another place that litter can originate is from the seemingly harmless balloon release events. Balloons are set free to float away and eventually disappear out of sight but not from the environment. Most burst, but even if they don't, whole balloons and balloon pieces still eventually come back down to earth or sea, causing problems for wildlife. At sea, seabirds, marine turtles and other wildlife mistake the balloons for prey and swallow them or become entangled in them.

We support the Marine Conservation Society's campaign for responsible balloon use, 'Don't Let Go'. If you'd like to find out more or get information on wildlife friendly balloon use, visit the campaign website.

In recent years there have been major improvements reducing these risks to seabirds and other marine life, 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.  

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.