Modeling Oil Spills in the Beaufort Sea

Effect on Fish

The Beaufort Sea and adjacent waters host marine wildlife and fish that are superbly adapted to the region’s challenging conditions

The Beaufort Sea is located in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Alaska and western Canada. Indigenous peoples have lived on the Beaufort coast for millennia. Many of them incorporate fish from local waters as part of their diet. Fish like Arctic cod are a key component of the Arctic marine ecosystem.

Modeling the impacts of oil spills in the Beaufort Sea


We used a sophisticated ecosystem model to evaluate the impacts of four different hypothetical oil spills, including a near-shore spill of crude oil from a drilling platform and a tanker ship spilling crude oil near the U.S.-Canadian border. A major oil spill would spread out to affect a vast stretch of the Beaufort Sea and coastline.

After simulated oil spills, the ecosystem model showed a decrease in fish populations in affected areas

Oil spills may have a chronic effect on fish population dynamics. In some hypothetical spill scenarios, the ecosystem model predicts that fish populations would continue to be negatively affected at least two years after oil was completely removed from the ecosystem. Some fish populations in Prince William Sound—like herring—still have not recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Hydrocarbon Contamination

In general, as oil contamination increases, fish populations decrease.

Oil contamination reduces fish populations

Oil contamination can impair or kill fish, which reduces overall fish populations in the affected areas. Decline in fish populations can affect indigenous people who rely on those fish as a source of food.

Change in Percent Catch of Fish for the Coastal Community of Nuiqsut

For example, in a hypothetical scenario where oil spills from an oil platform off the Beaufort Sea coast, the ecosystem model predicts that the community of Nuiqsut’s catch of fish would decrease substantially—and remains depressed—in the years after the spill.