ABU DHABI // More efforts are needed to study the impacts of oil spills in the UAE, a conservation expert said yesterday.
While the country has not experienced any significant pollution events in recent years, there are many small-scale events, including accidental discharges from oil refineries and other land-based sources, from coastal oil extraction activities, as well as from tankers illegally washing fuel storage areas and dumping the outflow in international waters.
These are major contributors to oil pollution worldwide but local data is lacking, said Dr Thabit Al Abdessalaam, conservation consultant at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.
Globally, nearly half of marine oil pollution is from land-based sources including urban run-off, discharges from refineries and other industries. In the UAE, no centralised database about spills from oil extraction operations or oil transportation exists.
"There is no central database that I know of," said Dr Abdessalaam on the sidelines of the Oil Spill Preparedness, Response and Recovery event, which ends today.
In addition to developing more accurate techniques to measure the impact of land-based pollution, scientists can also team up with oil companies to study areas near exploration sites, so that the long-term effect of small spills can be better understood. Assessing the impact of aging pipelines is another interesting areas of research, he said.
"There are not many studies done on these issues," he said.
In his presentation to delegates, Dr Abdessalaam said that more studies on oil pollution and its impact on the marine environment are crucial considering the UAE's significant oil resources, as well as the country's proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, which in 2011 saw oil traffic of about 17 million barrels of oil per day - about 35 per cent of all the world's sea-borne oil trade.
Studying the issue is also important considering how sensitive Arabian Gulf marine habitats are. With summer temperatures reaching averages of 40°C on the surface in some areas, coupled with high salinity, the Gulf's waters are an already tough environment for corals, sea grass and other important habitats, he said.
"Such extremes already pose environmental stress," he said. "An event like oil pollution could tip the balance very fast."
Of all marine habitats in the UAE, mangroves are among the most sensitive to coastal pollution with their estimated recovery time after a pollution event reaching up to 10 years, Dr Abdessalaam said.
"Mangrove seedlings and saplings are particularly susceptible to oil spills," he said.
Mangroves have aerial roots, which need to be freely exposed during periods of low tide so that the trees can breathe. If those are covered by heavy oils, the trees suffocate. Lighter fuels, such as petrol and kerosene, evaporate so the risk of suffocation is less, but they contain toxic substances which are also harmful.
Coral reefs, which are responsible for acting as nurseries for many species of commercially-important fish, are also sensitive to oil pollution. Corals live in a symbiotic relationship with marine algae, known as zooxanthellae, and may react to pollution by expelling the algae, which leads to coral bleaching and even coral death.
Sea-grass beds, an important marine habitat in Abu Dhabi, are also sensitive. Heavy oils, for example, can prevent sunlight from reaching the grass and disrupting photosynthesis, a process on which it, like all plants, relies to survive.
Among marine fauna, sea birds "are perhaps the most affected" in cases of oil pollution, Dr Abdessalaam said. Oil can coat bird's feathers, making it impossible to fly. Whales and dolphins, dugongs, marine turtles and fish are also affected by oil pollution.
Abu Dhabi has prepared a map of coastal resources, which outlines the sensitivities of different areas to oil spills. The tool can help decision-makers quickly outline environmentally sensitive areas in cases of emergency. Dr Abdessalaam recommended that other emirates also adopt the tool.