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Sea Alarm’s First 20 Years: We Are Stronger Together (Part 2)

Sea Alarm’s first 20 years: We are stronger together (Part 2)

In our last 20-year anniversary article (Part 1) we introduced the importance of networking, the role Sea Alarm has had in initiating and coordinating NGO Response networks and reviewed the history of the European Network EUROWA. In Part 2, we continue the story, presenting the work of the Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS) and some closing words on the significance of these networks, which leave the world better prepared for oiled wildlife response.

Read  Part 1 here.

GOWRS – the backstory through to today

The global oiled wildlife response community, like its European subset, includes specialised organisations in different parts of the world, which have an interest and activities in wildlife rehabilitation, and which have responded to oiled wildlife incidents in their home countries and/or abroad over the years. Sea Alarm began developing connections with a core of 10 global oiled wildlife response groups, initially through meeting at European spills where global wildlife responders provided assistance, then through informal exchanges at organised events including the Effects of Oil on Wildlife (EOW) Conferences.

Sharing experiences amongst the community demonstrated that a higher level of preparedness was needed for global oiled wildlife responses. This is especially important considering that oil spills can affect wildlife almost anywhere in the world, potentially impacting a wide range of different species, under varied climatic conditions and with many practical limitations and challenges, particularly in remote and unprepared countries.

Added to this is the varying degree of government understanding of the importance of dealing effectively with oiled wildlife, the uncertainty as to how local societies will value oiled wildlife and how they will react emotionally. This can place a huge pressure on the responsible party to deal effectively with animal casualties.

To begin to address these challenges, the global wildlife response community conceived an idea at the 2000 EOW conference to create an international Alliance of Oiled Wildlife Responders, in which Sea Alarm actively participated. The Alliance was set up to begin exploring the concept of creating a global wildlife response network and developing global standards.

After various meetings, the Alliance initiative came to an end in 2002 (partly due to a lack of sufficient funding to bring parties together regularly), however it made important inroads in bringing international groups closer together, identifying key players, recognising and respecting regional, cultural and experiential differences and starting to create collegial bonds between these groups. These early efforts, and experience gained, provided a strong foundation for today’s GOWRS network and its spirit of collaboration.

From 2002 onwards, the global wildlife response groups that participated in the Alliance continued, and expanded, their informal networking and cooperation through meeting at EOWs and other events, most notably oil spills such as the Prestige in 2002 and the Estonia Mystery Spill in 2006.

An important opportunity for organisations to start working with the oil industry came when IPIECA contracted Sea Alarm to develop the “Guide to Oiled Wildlife Response Planning”, which was published in 2004 as Volume 13 in IPIECA’s Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Series. For this purpose, Sea Alarm created a consortium of oiled wildlife responders, representatives from the oil and shipping industry, and oil spill response organisations which met at a workshop to define the contents of the document and form writing teams.

The publication of the Guide, as well as its creation process, were important milestones in the formal recognition that the appearance of oiled wildlife during a spill represents a potential reputation risk, thus wildlife response is a topic that needs full attention and integration in an incident management system. From that moment on, oil companies started reaching out to professional wildlife organisations as potential partners in planning and preparedness processes and, in Europe, governments also increased their interest in wildlife response standards.

A first step to forming a cooperative global network of global wildlife responders came in 2011, when Sea Alarm started to drive a renewed effort to bring organisations together for discussions as a follow-up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill incident in 2010. That incident resulted in a strong engagement of the global oil industry to undertake a wide-ranging review of its oil spill response procedures and arrangements across the board, providing a valuable opportunity to raise the issue of how oiled wildlife response was considered and if there was interest within the oil industry to help create a more robust infrastructure for global oiled wildlife response.

Sea Alarm convened a meeting of 10 leading wildlife response groups at the 2011 Portland International Oil Spill Conference to explore the way forward. The groups began to explore and identify the challenges ahead, to begin considering joint ways of working and ways to ensure that other parties (oil industry and shipping industry agents) understood their needs and requirements of wildlife responders when responding abroad.

A serious barrier to working together at a global level was the absence of financial means to meet in person frequently, to develop a truly global system of response services. All organisations expressed their explicit willingness to start collaborating at a second meeting that Sea Alarm organised in 2012, during the Effects of Oil on Wildlife Conference which was held in New Orleans that year.

When Sea Alarm discussed these concerns with its partner, Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL), it was decided to initiate and a host meeting between international stakeholders from industry, government, and the NGO sector to formally recognise and discuss the gap between the level of global wildlife response preparedness and other aspects of international oil spill response. The meeting was held during the London 2012 Interspill conference and hosted by OSRL. Representatives from some of the 10 oiled wildlife organisations met representatives of IMO, IOPC, ITOPF, IPIECA, OSRL, and the oil industry to ask for moral and financial support to help set up what eventually became GOWRS.

As a result of that meeting, the oil industry (recognising that they were initially most in need of such a system), invited the oiled wildlife response community to submit a preliminary proposal for a project to explore a work programme aimed at improving global wildlife response preparedness.

In 2013, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) and IPIECA (the global oil and gas industry association for advancing environmental and social performance) provided initial funding, through the Joint Industry Project (JIP-20) for a pilot project, including a meeting hosted in 2014 by Sea Alarm in Brussels, to develop a full proposal and begin the development of a Standard Operating Procedure. The proposal for this pilot project was approved by the JIP and oil industry funds were released via IPIECA to Sea Alarm, as the main contractor, for a two-year project to start building GOWRS, which commenced in mid 2015.

The two-year GOWRS project aimed to design and develop a collaborative tier-3 response preparedness system that would meet the requirements of both the oil industry (funders of the project) and the wildlife response community. It envisaged a multi-year engagement with the oil industry, with a hand-over of the system to OSRL once operational. The main achievements of this project were:

  • Creating and implementing a project management structure and Project Charter, agreeing a Declaration of Intent which defines and protects the GOWRS spirit of collaboration and exploring a long-term governance structure
  • Creating a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for on-the-ground wildlife response
  • Creating an online database of scientific literature on animal care standards
  • Performing preliminary readiness activities which defined needs for equipment and training, and exercise recommendations.
  • Creating an Industry Advisory Group (IAG) to serve as a sounding board for developing GOWRS, and act as a catalyst for the integration of oiled wildlife preparedness and response into oil industry thinking and its preparedness and response activities.

During the two-year period, Sea Alarm provided the Network coordinator, who took care of organisational and financial management of the programme activities and, increasingly, of the developing GOWRS Network itself.

Following this initial project, starting in 2017, Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) stepped in and has been providing the financial support for the GOWRS Network to further develop and establish itself ever since. These activities were contracted via Sea Alarm, and Sea Alarm continued to provide the coordinator of the Network.

In recent years the GOWRS project organisations have strengthened the bonds between them, and by working together on the project activities, huge steps have been taken to put in place global professional capacity that can support local wildlife responders when dealing with large complex oiled wildlife incidents. Since 2015, about a dozen in-person meetings have been held, in which good practices and response concepts have been exchanged, and roles and responsibilities trained and exercised.

Significant progress has been made on establishing more fixed governance structures for the longer term, culminating at a meeting in California in 2019 at which all project partners signed a Network Collaboration Agreement and Charter that define the partners’ shared identity and governance procedures. This has been one of the most significant outcomes of the GOWRS Project – the crystallising of an effective working relationship between participating wildlife response organisations into an international network. A strong bond has developed between the GOWRS groups and a deeper sense of trust and shared vision has resulted from the collaboration.

Whereas Sea Alarm continues to support the Network by facilitating contracts and the financial mechanisms, the Network is increasingly coordinating itself. It is expected that the relationship between the GOWRS Network and the oil industry will continue to strengthen in the years to come, creating great potential for global hands-on assistance in oiled wildlife incidents.


The benefits to an oiled wildlife organisation of being part of the EUROWA and GOWRS networks clearly go beyond developing capability, expertise and a track record on their own. By joining a formalised international network and adopting the standards and codes of conduct that go with it, member organisations gain credit and recognition. Authorities, oil industry and other key parties, will prefer to collaborate with organisations that are part of such networks, and this will help these parties in turn to also achieve higher standards for their national and international preparedness objectives. In this way the professional networks will assist in the development of preparedness and the better future results that can be expected from oiled wildlife response.

An example of this effect was visible in 2018, when the EUROWA network was mobilised alongside members of the GOWRS network to respond to the Bow Jubail incident in the Netherlands, where over 500 swans were cared for in a temporary wildlife rehabilitation facility. This was the first time the two networks had responded jointly to an incident, but the established relationships and friendly atmosphere amongst the wildlife responders involved, and their willingness to exchange and learn from each other, helped contribute in no small way to a successful response.

Sea Alarm has been able to play an important role in driving these networks forward by bringing people together, facilitating processes to agree texts and other deliverables and – importantly – ensuring funds are available for the work to continue. Our impartial role positions us well to drive the achievement of shared objectives and to make sure that all organisations communicate with each other, have a voice and are treated equally.

We believe wholeheartedly in the importance of these responder networks, so much so that Sea Alarm has made substantial investments, both in time and in supplementary financing, into the development of both the EUROWA and GOWRS initiatives over the years. We are proud to stand alongside the members of the GOWRS and EUROWA networks and call them partners and would like to thank them for their efforts, contributions and professionalism. Thanks is also due to our former colleague Paul Kelway who has put so much energy into the GOWRS network development, and continues to do so in his new role at Oil Spill Response Ltd. We will continue to do our best to drive these initiatives forwards, in support of building better preparedness for wildlife incidents around the world.

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