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How do oil spills impact people?

A No Fishing sign in Prince George's County, Maryland.

Oil spills can cause closures of recreational and commercial areas (Credit: NOAA).

In addition to the lives that can be lost during an oil spill event (like the explosion that led to the Deepwater Horizon spill), spills can impact the livelihoods of communities that rely on commercial or subsistence fishing, tourism, or recreation.

Recreational activities affected by the spill in the Gulf states impacted by Deepwater Horizon included boating, fishing, and beach-going experiences like swimming, surfing, and wildlife viewing. Some beaches and recreational fisheries were closed due to oiling and cleanup activities. A group of federal and state agencies, known as Trustees, were responsible for assessing the impact of the spill. The Trustees estimated that the spill impacted recreational activities from April 2010 through November 2011. During that time, the Deepwater Horizon spill caused the public to lose more than 16 million user days of boating, fishing, and beach-going experiences. Total recreational use damages due to the spill through November 2011 were estimated at $693.2 million.

Deepwater Horizon also devastated the commercial fishing industry. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimated that the spill caused a loss of between $7.5 million and $141.1 million in revenue for harvesters across the Gulf in the eight months following the oil spill. Many people rely on Gulf fisheries for their income, from the harvesters who catch the seafood to the restaurants who serve it. Across the seafood industry, Deepwater Horizon cost up to $952.9 million in total sales, up to $309.8 million in income, and as many as 9,315 jobs from May through December 2010.

These economic impacts can also lead to health and emotional impacts. After the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the people in Gulf coast communities experienced increases in stress and depression. Residents worried about the economy, their way of life, and the stability of their communities. All of these factors play a role in affecting their health.

Oil spills can cause stress or depression in people who live or work in affected areas (Credit: Florida Sea Grant/Anna Hinkeldey).

Oil spills can cause stress or depression in people who live or work in affected areas (Credit: Florida Sea Grant/Anna Hinkeldey). View and print this infographic and see the description below.

Indigenous communities—including Native American tribes, Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders—as well as other cultural groups have ties to natural resources that go beyond recreational or commercial activities.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill fouled the critically important ecosystem of Prince William Sound, Alaska, with 11 million gallons of crude oil. Native peoples account for nearly a fifth of Alaska’s overall population. Alaska Native people and cultures stretch throughout the state, intertwined with the unique land and the waters that surround it, including Prince William Sound. This area is home to several of Alaska’s tribal groups, including Aleuts, Athapaskans, Eskimos, Eyaks, and Tlingits. It offers many natural and cultural resources these groups look to for both subsistence and to uphold their way of life.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill significantly harmed these natural and cultural resources. A U.S. Department of the Interior study found that subsistence fishing and harvesting took a long time to recover in Prince William Sound. Wild foods harvested in the villages of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay declined from more than 600 pounds per person before the spill, to 225 pounds in 1989, and 150 pounds in 1990. Years later, harvests had still not recovered to pre-spill levels.

Infographic Description

This graphic shows a simple map of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, with text describing the mental health impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on communities in each of these states.

  • In Louisiana, the oil spill disrupted the work, school, and social life of some coastal residents, which resulted in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress.
  • In Mississippi, some coastal residents experienced worsened financial situations, social relationships, and health issues including more mentally unhealthy days compared to residents in the rest of the state.
  • In Alabama, some coastal residents felt stress, anxiety, and depression and had more mentally unhealthy days compared to residents in the rest of the state. Residents were also worried about air quality, safe seafood and their income or economic future.
  • In Florida, some coastal residents felt anxious and depressed especially if they experienced income loss from the spill. These feelings were observed even in areas where oil did not reach the shore.

Beneath the map, there are three icons:

  • An off-shore oil rig labeled “Oil and gas.”
  • A plane and suitcase labeled “Tourism.”
  • And a fishing vessel labeled “Fishing.”

These icons are accompanied by text reading, “Regionally, some coastal county residents reported decreased income, lost jobs, and a disruption in their work or family life, which resulted in mental health distress in themselves and their children. People that relied on the jobs connected to the Gulf were more likely to suffer from negative mental health symptoms after the oil spill. Of these industries, negative impacts were most common in fishing communities.”

Key Takeaway: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill affected communities in many different ways, but all reported increased mental health concerns.