Oil spills have become a growing concern for coastal communities and oceans at large. Over the course of the past few years, we’ve seen horrific effects from oil spills—having gruesome consequences for marine life, coastal environments, and the local economy, especially those that depend on fishing and tourism.

On January 15th, 2022, Peru witnessed one of the worst oil spills on its coasts, which affected 2 natural protected areas that threatened marine fauna such as birds, penguins, and otters, and since then, more than 1500 artisanal fishers have seen their activities paralyzed.

The History of Oil Spills in Peru

Oil spills are unfortunately not uncommon in Peru. WWF-Peru cites the report “The shadow of hydrocarbons in Peru” produced by Oxfam (2022) and states that from 1997 to the first quarter of 2021, there have been 1002 spills nationwide, of which 56% occurred in the Amazon and about 40% on the marine coast. Many of these incidents go unspoken about and abandoned.

Once an oil spill occurs, it is extremely difficult to combat, because of the viscous nature of the crude, which remains present for a long period in the marine environment. This causes devastating effects to the ecosystem, its species, and the communities that depend on these resources. Many areas with oil spills are abandoned due to the very expensive and time-intensive nature of tackling these areas. The area is ultimately polluted, and it can often take many years for the ecosystem to rebound.

In 2016, WWF-Peru issued a press release regarding a recent oil spill affecting Loreto, Peru.

“WWF-Peru regrets and expresses concern, after confirmation by PETROPERU, a Peruvian state-run company, for the crude spill occurred at 213 km of Stretch I of the Peruvian North Oil Pipeline located in the district of Barranca, province of Datem del Marañon, Loreto. This is the third oil spill reported so far this year.

In this regard, WWF-Peru stresses the importance of implementing an early alarm system with support of the local people. As a result, many indigenous peoples’ health and their livelihood are threatened because they depend on the affected ecosystems. That is why satisfying and providing water and food supply to affected population must be a high priority.

We call upon the strengthening of the environmental framework of national institutions in order to comply with the quality standards regarding the extraction activities being developed. This will create trust among the population and a sustainable socio-economic development as well.”

The Repsol Peru Oil Spill

On January 15th, 2022, the Peruvian coast and sea suffered the biggest oil spill that the country has seen to date. The spill occurred from the La Pampilla Refinery S.A.A., operated by Repsol Peru in the district of Ventanilla (Lima) with an estimated volume that exceeds 500 thousand gallons. According to WWF-Peru, “as of January 23, 2022, OEFA [Peru’s Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement] had estimated that the disaster had affected more than 1.8 million m2 of beaches on the coastal strip between Callao and Chancay. It is also estimated that more than 7.1 million square meters of the sea have also been committed.”

The oil spill that took place January 15th, 2022 as a result of Repsol Peru

© Daniela Freundt / WWF-Perú

The spill took place because of a routine tanker discharge that went awry where more than 10,000 barrels of crude oil spewed into the Pacific Ocean. The size of the spill is comparable to a thousand times the size of the National Stadium in Peru (which is similar to the capacity of Coors Field in Colorado), only in the affected marine area. These estimates continue to rise as the distribution of crude oil continues to expand.

The Rippling Consequences of Oil Spills

It is no surprise that oil spills have disastrous impacts. The cost is immeasurable not just for the oil company, but for the community and environment enduring the brunt of the spill.

Marine animals in the region impacted by the spill tend to suffocate, their physiological functions are disrupted, the ecology and ecosystem changes, any trace of chemical toxicity can lead to lethal effects, and ecologically important species can be eradicated entirely from the area. Typically, the main marine fauna that is usually affected by oil spills in the ocean are birds, followed by otters, cetaceans, turtles, and mammals such as sea lions, among others–depending on geographic location.

Birds are especially prone to the harmful effects of oil spills. WWF-Peru stated that “when their [birds] feathers are greased with oil, they lose their insulating capacity and buoyancy, causing the loss of body heat, ultimately causing hypothermia. When the oil enters their nostrils and eyes, it generates stress affecting their ability to swim and dive, potentially causing drowning. Similarly, a bird when trying to clean the oil by grooming itself is very likely to ingest the toxic crude, which can have serious intestinal affectations, leading to liver diseases, kidney diseases, among others.”

A rescued blue penguin from the Rena oil spill (2011) in New Zealand

A rescued blue penguin from the Rena oil spill (2011) in New Zealand
© WWF / Bob Zuur

WWF-Peru mentioned that consequences for whales, dolphins and other cetaceans were similar. Crude oil can cause damage to their nasal tissue and eyes, causing suffocation, and they can die of hypothermia or overheating when crude oil encounters their lifeline—their fur. Reptiles suffer from inflammation of the mucous membranes which increases susceptibility to infections, causing more subtle damage to behavior, feeding, growth, or reproductive functions.

Aside from just the consequences on species, oil spills are often tragic for the surrounding community. Commercial fishers are hit especially hard as the once valuable seafood they would catch has a very high risk of contamination and many buyers are reluctant to purchase from a region with possible contamination. Even the local community itself may struggle to feed themselves as coastal communities are very dependent on seafood for their diets.

Communities that rely on tourism to fuel their economy suffer tremendously at this time. For tourists who want a beach-side vacation, these oil spill-ridden locations are no longer favorable. The recovery takes years if it even happens. And during this time, the environment, community, and economy are dwindling.

What WWF is Doing

WWF is a member of the #RecuperoMiMar coalition, meaning “Recover My Sea” in English. This coalition in partnership with 260 civil society organizations works to:

  • join efforts to support the rescue of marine wildlife species;
  • collect donations to finance the recovery of the marine ecosystem, fauna, and affected fishing communities; and
  • seek international technical aid and generate the necessary incidence to solve this emergency, among others.

This coalition is specific to the oil spills taking place in Peru. Beyond this work, WWF is constantly advocating for regional cooperation for oil spill response and protecting sensitive areas from development in locations that are at heightened risk, including but not limited to Mauritius, the Arctic, and Syria.