Sea Alarm was active in the month-long response to wildlife affected by the Bow Jubail oil spill in Rotterdam Harbour, the Netherlands, coordinating the work of Dutch, European, and global responders in the care of more than 500 oiled swans.
The Bow Jubail oil spill
On Friday 23rd June, the chemical tanker, MS Bow Jubail, operated by the Norwegian company Odfjell, collided with a jetty while on its way to an assigned berth for loading. The collision occurred at about 14:30 local time at Derde Petroleumhaven, which is managed by the Port of Rotterdam.
The impact resulted in the hull being breached, spilling an estimated 217 tons of fuel oil into the harbour from the ruptured bunker tanks. Approximately 180 tons were eventually recovered mechanically from the water, mainly in the area of the initial spill. Much of the unrecovered oil, however, spread with the tides throughout a large proportion of the harbour, and via the Nieuwe Waterweg, reached the North Sea.
The oiled wildlife response
As the oil spread a large number of birds in the harbour were affected. The most obvious victims were a large number of the hundreds of mute swans which congregate in the area at this time of the year, although other species were impacted as well. The highly visible oiling of those swans, on a warm mid-summer weekend in the popular recreation zone of the Nieuwe Waterweg, caused hundreds of citizens to spontaneously self-mobilize to help the birds. Dozens of animal ambulances were activated in an attempt to rescue the swans and transport them to wildlife rehabilitation centres in the direct vicinity of the harbour.
By the evening of Sunday 24th June, about 30 hours after the incident, three wildlife rehabilitation centres and one available empty building were filled with more than 400 mute swans. During the same time period, professional ecologists, mobilised to do an initial impact assessment, counted another 600 oiled mute swans still in the area.
Fortunately the oil on the water disappeared quite quickly in the course of the first week, and therefore limited any further oiling of swans. Thanks to regular monitoring by the professional ecologists, another phenomenon was discovered; the total swan population in the harbour of Rotterdam refreshes itself almost every week. After the first week almost no oiled swans were observed during the ecological monitoring. Of the more than 600 oiled swans counted in the northern part of the harbour on day 2, around 130 were captured in the first week, but the remaining 400-500 had disappeared, having migrated to the open waters elsewhere in the Netherlands.
Sea Alarm was activated on Saturday 23rd June via SON-Response, the umbrella organisation for oiled wildlife response in the Netherlands. Sea Alarm then contacted Rijkswaterstaat to suggest the national wildlife response plan be activated. Although the plan does not technically apply to the harbour area, it was used by Rijkswaterstaat as the official document to guide the set-up of a Temporary Wildlife Hospital (TWH). The TWH was built on the Maeslantkering site, where a storm surge barrier that protects the Netherlands against flooding.
Temporary Wildlife Hospital consolidates response operations
To optimise designing, building, and staffing the TWH, Sea Alarm activated the EUROWA (European Oiled Wildlife Assistance) protocol, a suite of emergency response standards and procedures developed and agreed by leading European oiled wildlife response organisations. EUROWA experts were mobilised, and by the second day the hospital was ready to receive the hundreds of swans that had been kept and stabilised by the permanent wildlife centres. It took a full week, however, before all aspects of the TWH were completely operational.
What followed was an impressive four weeks of cooperative effort, during which a total of 522 oiled swans were admitted, examined, stabilised, washed, dried, rehabilitated, and waterproofed on purpose-built pools, following the EUROWA protocol. A wide array of Dutch, European, and global experts smoothly blended into a highly effective team, which ensured that all animals received best achievable care according to accepted international standards. As a result, of the total birds admitted, only 29 were unable to be released during this phase of the response. Eighteen were transferred to a permanent rehabilitation centre in Rotterdam, which was also caring for the other affected species, for more intensive treatment; seven, which were too compromised to benefit from further treatment, were euthanised; and only 4 birds died in care.
Visitors were impressed by the TWH operations at the Maeslantkering, which consisted of a large tent with a floor space of 30 x 40 metres, holding most of the departments, including intake, stabilisation, veterinary, pre-wash, and administrative areas. Most space (20 x 40 m) in the tent went to the cages which provided floor capacity for 408 swans. Outside, an additional group of 15 cages hosted another 120 swans.
The tent also had 8 washing bays supported by two large warm water generators. A total of 8 drying pens were built outside to maximise the benefit of the warm summer weather that lasted for weeks. Due to building limitations at the site, the pools department had to be built at a satellite location, some 500 metres away from the main base. While this was not convenient in many ways, vehicles were available every day to bridge the distance whenever needed.
During the whole response, Sea Alarm had to stretch itself quite considerably to support the authorities and responders in these successful endeavours. The staff of three were operational almost full time in key responsibilities: serving an overall advisory role, overseeing the SON-Response cooperation, coaching the TWH team leaders, assisting and administering TWH staff planning, coordinating ecological assessments, managing the international team meetings and logistics, and overseeing the joint financial claim for all cooperating organisations who contributed to the response.
Results of the response
In total, 497 birds were released after an intensive check for waterproofing, a veterinary examination, and placement of a unique identification ring on one leg. Ringing allows individuals to be identified when resighted, enabling scientists to study long term survival of treated birds. The animals were released into the open waters south of Rotterdam Harbour, which were not polluted. These waters are part of the swan’s normal area of distribution, where appropriate natural food is plentiful.
The TWH proved to be a highly effective response concept. Large numbers of oiled animals were given a professional treatment in a safe and highly efficient environment where resource use was optimised. The high release rate was made possible by the consistently favourable weather for four weeks; the species— swans—which are relatively easy to house and care for; the incredible coherence and focus of the international team on the work floor; and the high level of trust and support from Rijkswaterstaat.