Oil Spill on the Wild Harbor Marsh by John M. Teal and Kathryn A. Burns

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

Oil Spill on the Wild Harbor Marsh

by John M. Teal and Kathryn A. Burns

The oil spill at West Falmouth which resulted from the grounding of a fuel oil barge in September 1969, is probably the best studied such accident in the world. Within one week of the spill scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began studying the lethal effects of the oil on bottom animals. Observation of changes in abundance and distribution of animals and chemical characteristics of the oil remaining in the sediments have continued to the present.

Our work has dealt with the effects of the oil on the salt marshes of the Wild Harbor river onto which the oil was carried by a storm a few days after the spill. In spite of large numbers of dead estuarine animals, the immediate, apparent effect of the oil on the marsh itself was minimal. Marsh grasses were already seasonally brown when oiled. Dead fish and mussels were found on the marsh surface but throughout the first winter after the spill the marsh was fairly normal in appearance. During the following spring the effect of the oil became apparent.

Grass did not sprout on the oiled marsh as it did on the unoiled portions which turned green as usual. A small growth of green algae, along with a scattering of Salicornia (saltwort) grew on the oiled surface but the sparse growth only emphasized how complete was the destruction. Plant production of the oiled portion was reduced to zero. What little production remained was not sufficient to offset the rate of decomposition. The latter was determined by measuring carbon dioxide production resulting from the respiratory activity of all marsh organisms. Since only a few minute soil animals remained in the marsh, most of this activity was due to bacteria. Even this bacterial activity on the oiled marsh was only one quarter of that on the nearby healthy marsh.

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