A multidisciplinary long-term field experiment was conducted to evaluate the use of chemical dispersants to reduce the adverse environmental effects of oil spills in nearshore, tropical waters. Three study sites, whose intertidal and subtidal components consisted of mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs, were studied in detail before, during, and after exposure to untreated crude oil or chemically dispersed oil. This study simulated an unusually high (“worst case”) exposure level of dispersed oil and a moderate exposure level of untreated oil. The third site served as an untreated reference site. Assessments were made of the distribution and extent of contamination by hydrocarbons over time, and the short- and long-term effects on survival, abundance, and growth of the dominant flora and fauna of each habitat. The whole, untreated oil had severe, long-term effects on survival of mangroves and associated fauna, and relatively minor effects on seagrasses, corals, and associated organisms. Chemically dispersed oil caused declines in the abundance of corals, sea urchins, and other reef organisms, reduced coral growth rate in one species, and had minor or no effects on seagrasses and mangroves. Conclusions were drawn from these results on decision making for actual spills based on trade-offs between dispersing or not dispersing the oil.
This report deals only with the major results of the study. A large number of parameters were monitored, but in the interest of brevity only the most important aspects of the study are reported here. A detailed description of the methods used and a complete presentation and discussion of results is given in Ballou et al.2