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The tsesis oil spill: Acute and long-term impact on the benthos

Author(s): Elmgren R, Hansson S, Larsson U, Sundelin B, Boehm PD

Abstract

The “Tsesis” oil spill in October 1977 resulted in the release of over 1 000 tons of medium grade fuel oil in an archipelago in the brackish Baltic Sea. Considerable oil quantities reached the benthos by sedimentation. Within 16 d benthic amphipods of the genus Pontoporeia, as well as the polychaete Harmothoe sarsi Kinberg, showed reduction to less than 5% of pre-spill biomasses at the most impacted station. The clam Macoma balthica (L.) was more resistant, and showed little or no mortality, but was heavily contaminated by oil (about 2 000 μg g-1 dry wt total hydrocarbons). The meiofauna was strongly affected, with ostracods, harpacticoids, Turbellaria and kinorhynchs showing clear reductions in abundance, while nematodes, as a group, were more resistant. In the winter following the spill gravid Pontoporeia affinis Lindström females showed a statistically significant increase in the frequency of abnormal or undifferentiated eggs. Food-chain transfer of oil to flounder [Platichthys flesus (L.)] was indicated. Not until the second summer after the spill were the first signs of recovery noted at the most heavily impacted station: Amphipods, H. sarsi and harpacticoids increased and the oil concentrations in M. balthica decreased (to about 1 000 μg g-1). In the area where amphipods had been virtually eliminated, there was an unusually heavy recruitment of M. balthica, reaching 4 000 juveniles, of 1.5–2 mm length, per square metre, probably from settling in summer 1978. Three years after the spill Pontoporeia spp. biomass was still depressed in the most affected area, while H. sarsi showed normal biomass, and M. balthica abundance was inflated. Oil concentrations in M. balthica (about 250 μg g-1) and flounder were only slightly elevated and the oil could no longer be confidently ascribed to “Tsesis” origin, even using GC/MS-analysis. Recovery was thus underway, but the long lifespan of M. balthica implies that the disturbed community composition may persist for many years at this station. Full recovery is likely to require more than 5 yr and may take a decade or more. An effort to evaluate the accumulated monetary loss to fishery from the accident indicates that direct costs of shoreline cleanup and vessel damage were considerably greater.

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