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Sea Alarm’s First 20 Years: It’s Good Practice To Prepare For Oiled Wildlife Response

Sea Alarm’s first 20 years: It’s good practice to prepare for oiled wildlife response

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail say emergency responders, their clients and employers. It goes without saying that this is also true for the field of wildlife response and for Sea Alarm as an organisation. What does preparedness for wildlife response mean, and what did we do contribute to the use of good practices in response and preparedness?

In the oil spill response community, the term ‘good practice’ has replaced the use of ‘best practice’. No two oil spill emergencies are the same and therefore there is not a single “best” way to deal with them. But it is relevant to try and distinguish what would be “good” and what would be “not so good” or even “bad”. That is all about learning lessons from past responses and using those lessons in developing guidance for future incidents.

For Sea Alarm, developing good practice in preparedness and response has two main components:

  1. Bringing experts together to define, agree, write down and jointly promote what an effective oiled wildlife response is, the details of its components, what it takes to be able to deliver it, and to never stop learning.
  2. Assisting authorities and organisation in putting well-structured processes in place by which key stakeholders can train and exercise to develop their personal and collective skills and ability to deliver good practice and be effective on a response.

This article concentrates on Sea Alarm’s role in developing our own good practices, centred around the different phases of a response. When an oiled wildlife incident happens and Sea Alarm is called to assist, there are some key questions to be considered:

  • What emergency situation are we going into?
  • How should we and our partners respond, together with local stakeholders, and what do we try to achieve together?
  • How do we learn from it afterwards and educate others?
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These questions form the basis of our work to develop and share good practice documentation. Here, we will look at some of the good practice principles and concepts that we have produced together with our partners over the years.


What emergency situation are we going into?

Although the majority of our time is spent on preparedness activities, Sea Alarm is a response organisation in that we provide technical advice on oiled wildlife issues during emergency situations, as we reported in our previous article. We believe that it is good practice to develop a baseline level of knowledge on what situation you are going into if mobilised – what is the level of oiled wildlife preparedness in the affected country and what would the main challenges be? To address this, as one of the foundations of our partnership with OSRL, Sea Alarm develops Country Wildlife Response Profiles (CWRPs). These follow the principle of the country profiles for oil spill response prepared by ITOPF or REMPEC but are specifically focussed on the oiled wildlife arrangements in each country. They arm us with some basic information including:

  • Who are the main stakeholders at authority level? Is there a national oiled wildlife response plan in place and are strategies for dealing with oiled wildlife defined?
  • Are there resources for oiled wildlife response in-country – trained responders, veterinarians and volunteers and facilities and equipment?
  • What are the sensitivities – which marine wildlife species are commonly found and are there important areas for wildlife which are at risk from an oil spill?
  • Who are important sources of information that can be contacted, in order to get factual information on the developing scenario and the response.

Having this information saves us time when we are mobilised. The profile shapes our expectation: whether the wildlife response is likely to be well structured and professional, or a matter of improvisation with a lack of trained personnel and other resources and/or absence of funding and coordination. It gives us knowledge of the key parties on the ground who can be contacted for information, and assist us on arrival with visiting ongoing response activities and meeting the authorities. It helps us to make a quicker initial assessment of gaps and needs of the wildlife response operation; and to inform international resources ready to mobilise and assist.

Country Profiles are not a replacement for an oiled wildlife response plan, rather they are short documents providing a snapshot of the status of national oiled wildlife preparedness. Because of our incident experience, we have learnt what is important and which data to collect. As part of the process of developing a CWRP, we reach out to local stakeholders in each country to gather the required information, since much is not published or officially available. If requested to mobilise, some of our first calls would be to stakeholders identified while developing the CWRP. We consider maintaining a database of CWRPs as part of providing an effective response. To date, Sea Alarm has completed 108 CWRPs (and counting) – as we update and build on the existing database each year. The CWRPs are available on the Sea Alarm website as a free resource.

Analysing the results of CWRPs also allows us to make preparedness assessments for each country and for regions, e.g. at the level of regional seas. We can initiate, encourage or observe trends and draw conclusions on the state of the world’s preparedness for oiled wildlife incidents. From the CWRP’s we also develop Regional Response Profiles, which summarise the level of preparedness for each country within a region and provide an indication of the level of preparedness across a region or a regional sea.

This informs our work and, since many countries around the world do not yet have a national plan for oiled wildlife response, reminds us of the importance of our mission. It inspires us to develop tools, materials and resources that help key actors move forward in their aim to be better prepared.

Ready to respond – how do you do it?

Sea Alarm has been instrumental in developing guidance documents which describe what a well organised and executed wildlife response should be and the conditions needed to achieve it. Most of these documents have been written through a creative group process, where we have invested time getting international expert oiled wildlife responders’ ‘heads together’ around the table to collectively put their years of experience and knowledge down on paper in a format that can be shared with others.
Sea Alarm has played a role in creating funding mechanisms (via oil industry, EU, or own resources), coordinating the writing process, acting as project manager, and contributing to writing some of the materials based on our own response experience and knowledge. We often act as editor of the final products.

Ensuring that contemporary knowledge and insights are captured in the form of principles, handbooks or protocols, helps to structure pre-spill training as well as operations on the work floor during an incident. These guidance documents are beneficial to all stakeholders that aim to apply good practice to the affected animals. They also inform authorities and polluters such as oil or shipping companies on what to aim for and how preparedness programmes can be accommodated. Internationally described and agreed good practices also allow wildlife responders to work across borders and to mount a successful response at larger scales. All publicly available documents listed below can be found on the Sea Alarm website.

A set of pioneering international good practice documents for hands-on response were published in 2007, as part of three EU-funded projects (read more here). Following the Full City spill in 2009, Sea Alarm facilitated and assisted financially in the development of the first edition of the European protocol for oiled bird rehabilitation, in cooperation with WRCO, ProBird and RSPCA. This collaboration paved the way for developing a more detailed set of operational concepts and guidelines on oiled wildlife response, which were developed firstly in the POSOW project aimed at volunteers (2012-13), then in 2015 and 2016 through the EUROWA project.

In the early years of its existence, Sea Alarm convinced the oil industry to fund a project, managed by Sea Alarm, to write the IPIECA Guide to Oiled Wildlife Response Planning. The guide was published in 2004 after almost a year of writing and an international workshop in Greece, involving the world’s leading experts. This was, in hindsight, a milestone that placed the wildlife issue more directly into the mainstream of the oil spill response community worldwide. Another key milestone was reached in 2014 when this guide was rewritten as part of a project managed by Sea Alarm and published as the IPIECA-OGP Good Practice Guideline for Wildlife Response Preparedness. This document launches the establishment of wildlife preparedness as a dynamic and cyclic process of assessments, planning, training, exercises and evaluation. It encourages industry and authorities, being the key facilitators and regulatory beneficiaries of a successful wildlife response, to engage into multi-year commitments and investments.

The publication of the Good Practice Guide went hand in hand with development of another guideline, the Key Principles for the Protection, Care and Rehabilitation of Oiled Wildlife, which was published by IPIECA-OGP in 2017. This guideline was developed by the experts from 10 leading organisations as part of the Sea Alarm coordinated Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS) project, funded by IPIECA and OSRL. The document provides good practice guidelines on key aspects of a hands-on wildlife response, based on the collective global experience and knowledge of its authors.

On the governmental side, Sea Alarm has been working for several years with the main Regional Agreements in Europe, to help them build the political infrastructure for oiled wildlife response. Formal policy documents describing how authorities should approach the oiled wildlife planning process and what needs to be achieved have been adopted at in both the Baltic (HELCOM) and the North Sea (Bonn/OTSOPA) regions, including a formal HELCOM Recommendation and chapters in the Regional Response Manuals on oiled wildlife response.

After the spill – how do we learn from it and educate others?

As we mentioned earlier no two oiled wildlife incidents are the same, each one comes with its own plus points, challenges and areas for improvement depending on the setting and the scenario. Sea Alarm believes that it is important to analyse and learn lessons from each oiled wildlife incident, to guide future preparedness work and refine the ways in which international responder networks can best integrate into local response systems.

Being involved in the response to many oiled wildlife incidents over the years, Sea Alarm has observed first-hand how a response can unfold, who are the key parties, what are the key roadblocks to get past to get a response up and running and how to achieve that. Our unique experience and the knowledge gained is shared on the Sea Alarm website and also on our sister site EUROWA Website (, which is designed to provide a source of reference information on oiled wildlife response for an international audience. A database of global oiled wildlife incidents dating back to 1986 provides a picture of all major incidents affecting wildlife, including basic data on the number of animals affected and released following the response. Collating and sharing this information is important in developing our thinking around what an effective response should be and guiding our future preparedness and response efforts.

To help us and our response partners in learning lessons, Sea Alarm developed a methodology for identifying and evaluating lessons learned from oiled wildlife incidents by those involved. It is a structured evaluation of various aspects of an incident response and its management that allows a group of responders to systematically go over the various aspects of their achievements. It aims to analyse how the specific response unfolded under the given conditions, while identifying areas for improvement that will make future responses easier and more effective.

The methodology also highlights the many challenges to be faced in real emergency situations, the conditions under which oiled wildlife responders have to realise a functional operational effort and which factors have an impact on the success of the response. Members of the EUROWA network used this technique to evaluate the Bow Jubail incident in the Netherlands and found very useful to systematically review each phase of the wildlife response. The observations and points raised were also systematically listed, providing a solid process to then incorporate the lessons learned into existing EUROWA guidelines and procedures and identify where development of new types of guideline may be needed.

We would like to extend our thanks to all the individuals and organisations that have worked with us to develop good practice materials over our 20 year history, with special mention of our United States based colleague Dawn Smith, who has been instrumental in recent years in helping us to build up our database of CWRPs.

In our next article, we will also report on a number of tools that use new and innovative formats to help educate stakeholders on oiled wildlife preparedness issues.

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