New oil-related threat to seabirds

World-News-UK-Mystery-Threat_jpg.jpeg Seabirds face a range of threats including climate change, fisheries by-catch, plastic pollution, habitat loss and oil spills.  A new threat recently emerged in the UK, where over a thousand seabirds were contaminated by a sticky substance that left them dead or dying, washing up on Britain’s south-western beaches.

The two incidents, occurring in February and April 2013, affected species including guillemots, razorbills, gannets, Arctic skua and fulmar.

The sticky substance coating the birds’ feathers was concluded to be Polyisobutene (PIB) by Professor Steve Rowland, an expert in pollution from Plymouth University.  PIB is a chemical compound used as fuel and lubricant additives in engines, but is also used in other products such as adhesives, cling film and chewing gum.  It is thought that the PIB may have come from a cargo vessel or other ships tanks – for which it is currently legal to flush out at sea - although a specific source has not been found.


PIB coating a bird’s feathers has a similar impact to oil – the substance matts the feathers together and prohibits feathers from performing vital functions such as waterproofing and thermoregulation – birds become cold, wet and cannot hunt for food.  Treatment includes using oils to dissolve the PIB, followed by washing the bird with a detergent in warm water. However, birds must be stabilised first to ensure they have enough body heat and energy to cope with the washing procedure and need to stay in captivity for up to two weeks to regain sufficient strength and waterproofing before being released.

Wildlife advocates including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the RSPCA and The Wildlife Trust are calling for a review of PIB’s hazard status with a view to ban the expulsion of PIB at sea. Meanwhile, investigations are occurring as to possible culprits. The February spill investigation by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency was unsuccessful in sourcing the spill, whilst the investigation into April’s spill continues. The results of the investigation will be sent to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), who would be in charge of re-classifying PIB under the Marpol Convention.