The most serious types of oil pollution occur when an oil tanker goes ashore or hits a reef and spills its contents. As the oil drifts ashore, great damage is done to beaches, rocky shores, salt marshes, or mangrove forests. Cleanup is often attempted using mechanical means, or the application of dispersants, with mixed results. Usually, a proportion of native organisms are killed, but given time, the lighter fractions of oil evaporate, while the heavier fractions are decomposed by photochemical processes and microorganisms. International law now requires that vessel owners be responsible for any loss of oil, damage to existing ecosystems, and the costs of recommended cleanup.
Chronic low levels of oil pollution, resulting from accidental spills when loading or unloading, or from washing out oil tanks, are widespread and of significant concern. For example, it has been determined that corals around an oil terminal in the Red Sea have experienced lower growth rates and poor reproduction as a result of chronic low-level oil pollution.
Oil pollution of the open ocean is also a major concern. When Thor Heyerdahl crossed the South Pacific on the raft Kon-Tiki in 1947 he reported pristine waters, but his Ra expedition across the Atlantic twenty-two years later encountered oil slicks on forty-three of fifty-seven days at sea. The International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships was devised in 1973 and modified by the Protocol of 1978. Oceangoing vessels are subject to strict regulations concerning the discharge of oil, bilge water, and ballast water, and are forbidden to dump garbage and other solid waste. Accidental spills must be reported.
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