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Sea Alarm’s First 20 Years: We Are Stronger Together – Building Expertise Networks (Part 1)

Sea Alarm’s first 20 years: We are stronger together – building expertise networks (Part 1)

Network is a word that is used a lot nowadays, but what is a network? For Sea Alarm, it is a group of organisations and/or individuals with a common interest working together. We have a strong belief that by cooperating and striving towards common goals, a well-coordinated network can grow to be stronger than the sum of its parts (in other words, its individual members). 

This is hugely important in the field of oil spill preparedness and response, which by its nature is an activity that requires many different actors to come together. We see it as our mission to facilitate and coordinate expert networks and assist them in becoming effective in their collective aims and purpose.

Sea Alarm has a long history of initiating and managing NGO wildlife responder networks. In last month’s article we reported on the early days, when several major oil spills in Europe led to international mobilisation of expert responders from Europe and further afield to help local organisations deal with oil affected wildlife. Without the contributions of those international experts, the outcomes of those incidents would have likely been very different, since experts bring unique added value, including creating an effective work force, having a management overview, providing coaching, and working to agreed good practice methodology based on lessons learnt elsewhere. Spills tend to overwhelm local resources, and few countries across the globe have invested in national wildlife response planning. Although the situation regarding in-country preparedness has improved over the past 20 years, notably in Europe, hands-on wildlife response assistance from international expert networks is still a crucial element to successfully achieving animal welfare objectives in spill response today.

Providing this international assistance during an oil spill (a highly charged environment where emotions can run high) requires a cooperative expertise network that is ready to respond, is coordinated, works professionally to agreed standards, is friendly, efficient and ‘gets the job done’. That kind of situation cannot happen overnight but comes over years of individuals from different NGOs working together to build trust, learn from each other and to write down and apply their jointly agreed methods of working.

The two largest and most significant networks that Sea Alarm partners with are EUROWA (EURopean Oiled Wildlife Response Assistance) and GOWRS (Global Oiled Wildlife Response System). The two networks, both initiated and supported by Sea Alarm, have developed in parallel with the same overall mission, but different end users and geographic scope. EUROWA is a European network of oiled wildlife experts, intended to assist governmental end users, that can be mobilised by government agencies via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. GOWRS is a global network of oiled wildlife response experts initially created to serve the oil industry to provide capacity to respond to incidents occurring anywhere in the world. The story behind the development of the EUROWA network is outlined in this article. Part 2, which looks back on the history and achievements of the GOWRS initiative will follow in the next article.

EUROWA – the backstory through to today

The cooperation between European wildlife response groups has a decades-long history, as groups from different countries mobilised to assist oil-affected wildlife, and found themselves working alongside one another. Methodology between groups was different and communication was difficult, thus often this type response resulted in segregated action, or many affected animals being transported across borders.

Sea Alarm regularly was activated and supported by groups who thought that international networking and cooperating between spills was essential. With Sea Alarm’s first spill involvement between 2000-2005, we made a start by providing evaluations and moderating discussions on developing good practices. The collaboration with some key organisations was promising, however funds to make structural progress were limited. Once Sea Alarm started working with the oil industry and received structural funding for its mission, it became possible to build a more professional support to developing networks.

European groups began meeting more often during and between spills, and Sea Alarm started messaging European authorities on the need for planning and preparedness. EU-funded projects, and also ad-hoc funding (e.g. Tour Pour La Mer funds, raised for Sea Alarm by the Shipping Industry in 2006), allowed for more frequent structure oriented discussions between an increasing European network of organisations. These meetings began to define and describe the standards that the group as a whole wanted to work to, and which European responders could eventually be trained in.
At the same time, key response organisations saw that they were beginning to have a shared idea of what an appropriate response should be, which treatment should be given to oiled animals and that a basic level of preparedness should be developed. From 2006 onwards, Sea Alarm began to support and represent European oiled wildlife responders, creating a sense of community and moving towards developing common technical principles for international oiled wildlife response. These activities continue today in the framework of EUROWA.

A significant move forward came after the Full City Spill (Norway, 2009), in which a European team assisted their Norwegian colleagues in responding to birds affected by that spill. The groups began to look at joint approaches and training standards for their work, to provide a basis for international assistance which could prevent prolonged discussions, or even conflicts, on the work floor. A first important milestone was when a first draft of a joint “European” seabird rehabilitation protocol was developed via discussions during the course of 2009-2014 between three groups: Wildlife Rescue Centre Ostend, RSPCA and ProBird. After a number of draft versions, Sea Alarm published the first version of the European Protocol in 2014. That protocol has been updated over the years and today is part of the EUROWA standards series.

A successful proposal made to the European Commission in 2014 resulted in the EUROWA project that was carried out in the period 2015-2016. The main outcomes of the project (led by Sea Alarm, in partnership with Wildlife Rescue Centre

Ostend-Belgium, RSPCA-United Kingdom, WWF-Finland and ProBird-Germany) were:
• A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for EUROWA, according to DG Echo guidelines and international standards for oiled wildlife response and preparedness.
• A portfolio of professional oiled wildlife responder training packages used to develop the skills and knowledge of European experts from various countries.  A range of Manuals and Handbooks were developed and printed to accompany the training courses, which form the backbone of today’s EUROWA Standards series.
• Provision of centralised training courses to the project team and interested organisations and individuals from Member States. An accreditation philosophy was defined that allows expertise to be developed and expanded regardless of country borders. Six pilot training events were delivered in 2015-16 to test the new materials.
• Continuation of European expert wildlife responder exchange meetings and expansion of the network.
• A database to keep track of people being trained on the basis of the new material and ensure a central register in order to maintain quality objectives.
• A maintenance programme for a European stockpile of oiled wildlife response equipment ensuring the availability and mobilisation of that stockpile for incidents.

Creation of the EUROWA training portfolio followed a new methodology: project partners and a number of other experienced individuals went back to the beginning to determine which competencies, skills and tasks were required at each level of a wildlife response, then used this information to build a training portfolio from the ground up. Completing this complex objective would not have been possible without the long-standing trust, willingness to ‘open their house’ and spirit of collaboration amongst European response groups.

The EU project was highly successful in setting a European standard for oiled wildlife response good practice and forms the basis of national approaches in an increasing number of countries. In the time since the project was finalised Sea Alarm has been successful in continuing the cooperation and coordination between a growing number of organisations in Europe, partly through attracting sponsor funding from private entities (e.g. Aramco), to expand the EUROWA training portfolio and roll out a number of training events and meetings in Europe.

In 2019, the EUROWA Charter was established to formalise the EUROWA Network at a summit meeting of the leading organisations. The Charter describes the Network and its objectives and services, provides governance rules, and is a shared vision where European countries are able to deal effectively with emergencies that affect marine wildlife with each country developing their own integrated plans and preparedness programmes. Critically, the Charter notes that, as part of those programmes, close cooperation with NGOs and formally involving them in training and exercise programmes are basic needs. The Charter will thus help to promote the need for authorities in Europe to be prepared, counting on the assistance of international groups like EUROWA, but recognising that there is still a need to establish local preparedness that international experts can integrate into.

The Charter outlines a joint communications strategy that explains the role of network members and governments in moving towards these aims. It outlines a shared vision of network members to work together to develop joint professional standards and to train and exercise their international assistance function. By signing up, individual NGOs can have a stronger and more unified voice in advocating for marine wildlife emergency preparedness. The Charter also outlines how the EUROWA network operates and its governance structures which are now in place. To date, 8 organisations in different European countries have signed the EUROWA Charter. It is still open to any interested wildlife response organisation or individual in Europe. Further details can be seen at https://www.oiledwildlife.eu/eurowa

Check back for our next article which will continue to Part 2 of the story, with a focus on the work of the GOWRS initiative.

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