Oil spill’s effects could linger for decades

The delicate ecosystem along the Sea of Japan coast is on the verge of collapse as oil slicks from a ruptured Russian tanker continue to take their toll.The number of seabirds soaked in oil and needing treatment is on the rise, and it is feared other marine life along the beach will continue to suffer extensive damage for years. According to the Environment Agency, nearly 100 of the 348 seabirds taken to local emergency care centers had died as of Jan. 14 evening. The wounded and dead birds represent 13 species, including black-tailed gulls and kittiwakes. “Fuel oil, if it sticks on birds’ feathers, decomposes the surface substance that repels water,” pointed out Kazuoki Ueda, a Tokyo high school teacher and a member of a nongovernmental organization specializing in the protection of penguins. “Water then soaks the feathers and lowers the body temperature, which often results in death.”Seabirds smeared with oil may die in different ways, said Ueda, who helped cleanse and rehabilitate birds injured in a 1994 South African spill in which 5,000 kiloliters of oil killed at least 12,000 penguins and 7,000 gulls. Ueda explained that when oil-tainted seabirds peck their feathers, they may ingest some oil. “This eventually leads to fatal suffocation when the slime fills their throats,” he said.According to the Maritime Safety Agency, the ruptured Nakhodka had been carrying 19,000 kiloliters of oil; officials believe the submerged portion of the tanker still holds 12,500 kiloliters. The ship’s bow section, which has been stranded for more than a week off Mikuni, Fukui Prefecture, holds 2,800 kiloliters after spilling 3,700 kiloliters.