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Helgoland Marine Research

Open Access

Oil, oil dispersants and related substances in the marine environment

  • W. Gunkel1 and
  • G. Gassmann1
Helgoländer Meeresuntersuchungen33:BF02414744


Of all substances threatening life in the seas, oil has received by far the most attention from the public, administrators, politicians and scientists. The main reasons for this are: (1) even limited amounts of oil are easily visible; (2) oil can exert obvious negative effects, e. g. extensive damage to birds and other animals, impairment of the recreational value of beaches and marinas, losses in fisheries due to tainting of catches and rejection by the public of seafood from areas known to have been recently polluted. In addition, dramatic tanker accidents are widely publicized. During the last decade tens of thousands of papers have been published about the impact of oil on the marine environment, and we are well informed about most basic facts, such as input and fate of oil, toxicity to adult organisms and recolonization. Due to considerable sophistication of analytical techniques, especially the introduction of glass-capillary gas chromatography, we are well aware that recently formed biogenic hydrocarbons by far extend the input directly due to pollution. Large gaps exist in our knowledge about sedimentation and transport of weathered oil, natural degradation rates, and the flow of hydrocarbons through the food web. Relatively little is known about the influence of oil and dispersants upon complex ecosystems. The often mentioned suspicion of increased cancer probability in humans due to seafood contaminated by hydrocarbons has not been substantiated; in fact, it seems unlikely that such an effect exists. By far the greatest uncertainty about potential oil impact concerns possible negative effects of hydrocarbons on chemical communication mechanisms between organisms. Intensive studies of behaviour scientists working with concentrations far below the toxic level are needed in fisheries biology, zoology and botany. Most cases of oil contamination known thus far have been limited in space and time; the oil has turned out to be degradable by natural processes. Such oil pollution neither endangers nor considerably impairs the future of mankind. In future research, more than anything else, objective critical evaluation and careful quantification are needed.