The ability to make a positive contribution in a response to an oiled wildlife emergency has always been a key objective in our work. In our 20 years we have responded to quite a few incidents in different countries under many different circumstances. This article will revisit some of these incidents to share what we’ve learned and to explain why real-time incidents have always been the main driver of our preparedness work.
Marine incidents such as oil spills do not happen every day and coastal communities that are confronted with such an incident will be challenged in many ways. The level of preparedness to deal with oil spill incidents differs from country to country. In most, the responsibility to act lies with multiple bodies and agencies, especially where an incident has multiple components, e.g. at sea oil combat, shoreline protection/clean-up, and wildlife response. In these situations, the response can quickly become divided between these bodies resulting in the incident being managed from multiple coordination centres, rather than from a single place.
This can quickly create problems such as delayed availability, and exchange, of information which lead to a slow response, or no timely response at all. The welfare of marine wildlife, in particular, suffers from this inability of authorities to put a rapid and effective response together.
The wildlife problem often surprises authorities and can leave them paralysed, as it is often far from clear who amongst them is responsible for the animals once they are oiled. While authorities are puzzled, or not looking, the animals are left to any citizen, group of citizens, or NGO, to improvise a response. Animals end up in family bathrooms, farmer’s barns, zoos, or rehabilitation centres with little or no oiled wildlife experience, where they receive some care, but little effective treatment that will benefit them in the end.
This has been often the situation that we would observe on our arrival after having received a call for assistance. This is where our work onsite often starts, aiming to help NGOs and volunteer groups, who are often in despair, but first and foremost to help the animals that are deteriorating towards an inevitable death.
Sea Alarm does not have the skills to assist individual animals, and that is not what we aim to do. As part of our 24/7 readiness our response work concentrates around main target activities. On receiving a mobilisation request and/or notification of an incident:
- We begin by gathering information from organisations and websites via research and phone calls, identifying key local players, notifying expert response groups and preparing for mobilisation, if appropriate. This continues from the Sea Alarm office even after one Sea Alarm expert is mobilised in-country.
- In the absence of an authority that requests our assistance, we ensure we have a link with a strong local NGO that can provide Sea Alarm with an explicit invitation, on site logistics support, local information, connections with authorities and decision makers and translator services.
- We then connect with experienced international groups and experts and identify which expertise and assistance can potentially be mobilised to assist the local groups and the animals. We make sure they are on stand-by and activate them as soon as an invitation and budget are available.
- The next step is to enable one or more wildlife experts, who can immediately start assessing the condition of the animals in care, to join Sea Alarm’s response mission within 24hr. They will help determine how many animals have been rescued, where they have been brought to, what kind of care they receive and which local resources are available.
- Also critical is finding, and connecting with, the leading local authorities to discuss the support and integration of the wildlife response into the overall response, and try to secure funding for an international wildlife response team.
- We also connect with the polluter (Responsible Party) or its insurer, to highlight the wildlife response needs, and ensure those activities are considered in terms of cost compensation; thus ensuring the mobilisation of international wildlife response resources will be considered “reasonable”; paving the way for claim submission and maximising the success of such a claim, even before the professional wildlife response has started.
- We also provide advice to wildlife response leaders while initiating a gap analysis, then start processes both nationally and internationally to fill identified gaps.
- Another role we assume is in assisting with the arrival of international resources; assisting with the processes by which they can blend in with ongoing activities; providing introductions and organising the response with the right expertise in the right position.
- Finally, we emphasise and organise the training of local resources during the response by linking key personnel to international experts and facilitating training sessions where possible and appropriate.
Examples of responses
A number of key responses and our main learned lessons in the course of Sea Alarm’s 20 years are listed here.
A principal problem with marine spills is that animals that can be affected by oil are living in the marine environment, and it is in the offshore environment where they risk getting oiled. If they do, then they may drift ashore. As a first line of defence, the authority that deals with the at-sea response can, if they act quickly, use windows of opportunity to prevent wildlife oiling, or to minimise the numbers of animals that do get oiled – provided they have the tools and information at hand as part of their preparedness.
When oiled animals eventually arrive onshore, they also enter the public domain. Logically, that is where animal welfare issues are clearly visible to the public for the first time, leading to a reaction from the public, media and authorities.
In a well-coordinated and prepared response system, the potential for wildlife problems can be identified much earlier and logistics and management can roll out immediately before, or shortly after, animals arrive. This can and will avoid a situation where the problem has to be taken care of by citizens or inexperienced groups and NGOs. It ensures that oil affected animals will be dealt with by professional resources and the predefined objectives can be achieved.
This is the situation we aim for when Sea Alarm builds relationships with governments, industry and NGOs. We strive to motivate them to discuss these issues, develop plans and build capacity and resources to make a professional approach possible. Our experiences and examples from response activities in the past, as well as our lessons learned, are instrumental in getting our messages across.