Mass mortality of seabirds in the aftermath of the Prestige oil spill

Munilla, Ignacio, José Manuel Arcos, Daniel Oro, David Álvarez, Patricia M. Leyenda & Alberto Velando. “Mass mortality of seabirds in the aftermath of the Prestige oil spill.” Ecosphere 2, no. 7 (2011): 1-14.

In the winter of 2002–03 the Prestige tanker spilled 60,000 tons of oil over the northern half of the Iberian Coastal Large Marine Ecosystem (northern Portugal to France). Most (c. 85%) of the 22,981 oiled seabirds reported were alcids (i.e., auks): Common Murres (Uria aalge), Razorbills (Alca torda) and Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica). Here we estimated the mortality of alcids in Galicia (northwestern Spain), the area that received most of the Prestige oil and where half of the oiled seabirds were collected. We performed three experiments that included: (1) a test of several drift block models in open sea, to select the one that best fitted the drift of alcid carcasses; (2) the release of 450 drift blocks at 9 offshore points to assess the recovery rate of oiled alcids and its spatial variation; (3) the assessment of beach survey effort and the detectability of drift blocks. Mean mortality estimates and their bootstrapped confidence intervals were obtained through an estimation model that established: (1) a temporal limit of 23 days to block drifting; (2) spatial differences in the recovery rates of blocks depending on how far away from the coast they were released; (3) a correction factor accounting for detectability, and (4) the distribution pattern of the three alcid species involved according to three distance classes, based on ship surveys. The Prestige oil spill, in terms of acute seabird mortality, was one of the worst oil spills ever reported worldwide. Compared to other major oil spills the estimated mortality for the Prestige oil spill was higher than expected from the number of carcasses retrieved. We recommend that drift block assessments of seabird mortality should be included in contingency response plans to oil pollution emergencies; therefore, a supply of drift-blocks designed to mimic the drifting behavior of the marine bird species of interests should be at hand.