Seabird feathers as monitors of the levels and persistence of heavy metal pollution after the Prestige oil spill

Moreno, R., Jover, L., Diez, C. & Sanpera, C. Seabird feathers as monitors of the levels and persistence of heavy metal pollution after the Prestige oil spill. Environmental pollution 159, 2454–2460 (2011).


We measured heavy metal concentrations in yellow-legged gulls (n=196) and European shags (n=189) in order to assess the temporal pattern of contaminant exposure following the Prestige oil spill in November 2002. We analysed Pb, Cu, Zn, Cr, Ni and V levels in chick feathers sampled at four colonies during seven post-spill years (2003-2009), and compared results with pre-spill levels obtained from feathers of juvenile shag corpses (grown in spring/summer 2002). Following the Prestige wreck, Cu (4.3-10 mg g-1) and Pb concentrations (1.0e1.4 mg g-1) were, respectively, between two and five times higher than prespill
levels (1.5-3.6 and 0.1-0.4 mg g-1), but returned to previous background concentrations after three years. Our study highlights the suitability of chick feathers of seabirds for assessing the impact of oil spills on heavy metal contamination, and provides the best evidence to date on the persistence of oil pollution after the Prestige incident.

Ten Years after the Prestige Oil Spill: Seabird Trophic Ecology as Indicator of Long-Term Effects on the Coastal Marine Ecosystem

Moreno, R., Jover, L., Diez, C., Sardá, F. & Sanpera, C. Ten Years after the Prestige Oil Spill: Seabird Trophic Ecology as Indicator of Long-Term Effects on the Coastal Marine Ecosystem. PLoS ONE 8, e77360 (2013).


Major oil spills can have long-term impacts since oil pollution does not only result in acute mortality of marine organisms, but also affects productivity levels, predator-prey dynamics, and damages habitats that support marine communities. However, despite the conservation implications of oil accidents, the monitoring and assessment of its lasting impacts still remains a difficult and daunting task. Here, we used European shags to evaluate the overall, lasting effects of the Prestige oil spill (2002) on the affected marine ecosystem. Using δ15N and Hg analysis, we trace temporal changes in feeding ecology potentially related to alterations of the food web due to the spill. Using climatic and oceanic data, we also investigate the influence of North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index, the sea surface temperature (SST) and the chlorophyll a (Chl a) on the observed changes. Analysis of δ15N and Hg concentrations revealed that after the Prestige oil spill, shag chicks abruptly switched their trophic level from a diet based on a high percentage of demersal-benthic fish to a higher proportion of pelagic/semi-pelagic species. There was no evidence that Chl a, SST and NAO reflected any particular changes or severity in environmental conditions for any year or season that may explain the sudden change observed in trophic level. Thus, this study highlighted an impact on the marine food web for at least three years. Our results provide the best evidence to date of the long-term consequences of the Prestige oil spill. They also show how, regardless of wider oceanographic variability, lasting impacts on predator-prey dynamics can be assessed using biochemical markers. This is particularly useful if larger scale and longer term monitoring of all trophic levels is unfeasible due to limited funding or high ecosystem complexity.

Long-term reproductive impairment in a seabird after the Prestige oil spill

Barros, Á., Álvarez, D. & Velando, A. Long-term reproductive impairment in a seabird after the Prestige oil spill. Biology letters 10, 20131041 (2014).


Large oil spills are dramatic perturbations on marine ecosystems, and seabirds are one of the worst affected organisms in such events. It has been argued that oil spills may have important long-term consequences on marine organisms, but supporting evidence remains scarce. The European shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) was strongly impacted at population level by the Prestige oil spill, the biggest spillage in the eastern North Atlantic. In this paper, we report on the long-term consequences on reproduction of this coastal seabird, using temporal and spatial replicated data (before–after–control–impact design). Our study revealed long-term reproductive impairment during at least the first 10 years since the Prestige oil spill. Annual reproductive success did not differ before the impact, but after the impact it was reduced by 45% in oiled colonies compared with unoiled ones. This is a rare documentation of long-term effects after a major oil spill, highlighting the need for long-term monitoring in order to assess the real impact of this type of disturbance on marine organisms.