20 Feb 2020

Full impact of mysterious Brazil oil spill remains unknown

Last summer, an oil spill of unknown origin hit Brazil’s northeast coast – just as migrating shorebirds arrived in the area. Our Partner SAVE Brasil has been campaigning for action and striving to measure the impact on birds - but more support is urgently needed.

Beaches, mangroves and reefs have all been contaminated © TV BrasilGov
Beaches, mangroves and reefs have all been contaminated © TV BrasilGov
By Jessica Law

In August 2019, strange blobs of oil started to wash up along Brazil’s northeast coast, sparking fear among local people and conservationists. Despite many theories, the source of the oil remains mysterious. What we do know is that to date, more than 5,000 tonnes of oil have been cleared up from about 1,000 locations. The oil has contaminated estuaries, beaches, mangroves and reefs along 4,000 km of Brazil’s shoreline, and is still being washed up as we speak.

At the time the oil started to hit, shorebirds were using this stretch of coast as a rest stop on migration to their southern wintering grounds, or settling down to spend the winter there outright. A particular concern is the Red Knot Calidris canutus – a large sandpiper known for gorging itself and doubling in weight before setting off on migration. The species is globally listed as Near Threatened, but the American subspecies, the rufa Red Knot, may be in more trouble still: large numbers overwinter in the areas affected by the oil spill.

The oil spill could spell disaster for a rare Red Knot sub-species © Scott Heron

One significant site was Mangue Seco, an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA). Here, birds were found with oil on both their feet and wings, implying that they had picked it up when touching down to rest on the sand. A Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus was found covered in oil nearby, having migrated all the way from Canada. Oil ruins the waterproofing on birds’ feathers and can poison them directly if they swallow it when preening. In some places, rescued birds were found so coated in oil that they were unable to move.

This is just one of eleven vital bird habitats that have been contaminated. Even more worryingly, oil has reached 30 of Brazil’s federal protected areas in the region. When the government was slow to respond to the crisis, hundreds of local community members hurried to clean up the beaches with their own hands. The oil spill, dubbed the largest environmental crisis in the history of Brazil, is expected to jeopardise the livelihoods of up to 144,000 fishermen and shellfish farmers along the coast. Artisanal fishing was already being undermined by pollution and depleted fish stocks. Now, the oil spill has caused a 70% decrease in sales of fish and other seafood.

Mangue Seco, an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, in happier times © Leo Francini

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

We do not yet know the full impact of the disaster on bird populations. Our Partner SAVE Brasil is currently collaborating with other organisations to discover more. To encourage action, they sent out a letter to several levels of the Brazilian government on behalf of the National Shorebird Conservation Plan, outlining the impact of oil on shorebirds and the measures required to protect them.

Certain authorities are already beginning to take notice. Some beaches had been using a large tractor to scrape oil off the top layer of sand – but this also removes a lot of seaweed, molluscs and other vital bird food sources. At least one state has changed to a different technique after reading the letter. Furthermore, the federal environmental agency ICMBio promised support for monitoring shorebird populations throughout this winter, but more action still is urgently required.