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Sea Alarm’s first 20 years: Laying the foundations for European oiled wildlife response capability

At the turn of the new millennium, Sea Alarm was still a young organisation aiming to bring more professionalism into the field of oiled wildlife response by working in cooperation with animal care specialists, governments and industry stakeholders. This journey to professionalism, marked by a number of serious oil spills, was not a smooth one.

Early incidents in Europe

From 1993 to 2007, 15 oiled wildlife incidents,roughly one every year, occurred in Europe  including the Braer, Prestige, Erika and Tricolor incidents. These incidents, a were a strong test of how prepared Europe was to deal with oiled wildlife as part of an emergency response, as at the time, most European countries had not developed national oiled wildlife response plans.

The logistical challenges of dealing with animal casualties over large areas against the backdrop of a complex mix of responsibilities between local and regional authorities made it an uphill struggle to mount and coordinate a robust response. Dealing with the sheer numbers of animal casualties (sometimes thousands), often without adequate local rehabilitation facilities, provided local stakeholders with enormous challenges in sourcing, equipping and ramping up facilities to quickly to deal with affected animals.

Many of these incidents were large enough to overwhelm local wildlife response capability, resulting in those response organisations reaching out to Sea Alarm, and other experienced European oiled wildlife response NGOs, to assist. The spirit of collaboration was strong, and the assistance provided invaluable to the success of these responses. However, the lack of a formalised system for providing international assistance and the absence of any agreed European protocols and best practices for wildlife rehabilitation meant that much improvisation was needed. Clearly European countries had more work to do to be better prepared for such situations.

The need for European cooperation

The incidents substantially highlighted the need for European governments to integrate oiled wildlife preparedness into their emergency response plans and programmes, to provide a platform for wildlife responders to cooperate, and to define working methods and best practices. European wildlife rehabilitation organisations asked Sea Alarm to take on the role of independent advisor and facilitator to motivate European governments to strengthen their oiled wildlife preparedness and to facilitate the wildlife rehabilitation groups’ efforts to work together.

A programme of regular informal meetings between European responders was initiated – to review their joint spill experiences and ways of working together, to exchange methodologies, and, importantly, to start to develop a real sense of community. However, these ‘pro bono’ activities, only went so far in initiating real change in Europe. What was needed was a “new order” for dealing with oiled wildlife – a set of standard international tools, best practices and guidelines underpinned by governmental preparedness in every coastal country, that would allow for a smoother, faster and more efficient response in the future.

To spread this message Sea Alarm started attending the main European Regional Agreements in 2003 to raise awareness of the need to develop national oiled wildlife response plans and to help develop guidelines on mutual assistance procedures between Contracting Parties, which is the focus of this 20 year article.

Following the Erika incident, the European Commission (EC) added “wildlife response” to the list of priorities in its annual call for proposals for Community Framework for Cooperation in the field of Accidental or Deliberate Marine Pollution funding, however this initially failed to attract strategic proposals from the wildlife community. Sea Alarm had developed concrete project ideas and the necessary political support, however with no employees on the payroll until 2005, the organisation was not qualified to receive European funding on its own. Thanks to a successful effort between 2000 and 2004, focusing on the oil and shipping industry, Sea Alarm began receiving structural funding from Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL), which made the organisation eligible for European funds. Sea Alarm immediately teamed up with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), to write three separate proposals for the 2005 EU call, all three of which (Sea Alarm led one and partnered in the other two), were approved for EU Community Framework project funding. The projects took place from January 2006 to December 2007.

European Oiled Wildlife Response Planning Project

This project, led by Sea Alarm, in cooperation with IFAW, the Finnish Environmental Institute (SKYE), the Istituto Centrale per la Ricerca scientifica e tecnologica applicata Al Mare (ICRAM), OSRL and the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) as partners, initiated an exchange of information and experience between EU Member States to develop a rationale, tools and a draft international response plan by which those Member States, individually or together, might achieve a higher state of oiled wildlife response preparedness.

An international workshop hosted by Cedre, a French oil spill response agency, in 2006 formed the core of this project, during which authorities responsible for oil spill management and welfare issues, as well as leading NGOs concluded that the level of preparedness in Europe could and should be improved. Based on this workshop and the impact assessment and rehabilitation projects discussed below, a draft European oiled wildlife response plan was created. This strategic vision outlines activities that that should be adopted and carried out at national, regional and international levels, focussing on the need for proper planning to implement these activities effectively and according to best practices.

It calls on European coastal states to:
1) Develop oiled wildlife response plans as an integrated part of national oil spill preparedness,
2) Incorporate international guidelines of good practice into such plans,
3) Participate in the further development of an international wildlife response plan in order to manage large scale incidents that overwhelm local capacity.

The plan also calls for building an international community of skilled responders who contribute to the development of international standards of good practice which they can apply during oiled wildlife incidents, eventually creating a collective, coordinated process for trained experts from each European State, whereby personnel from any number of countries can quickly organise themselves in an international team mobilised to assist a country in responding to a wildlife incident. Together they would be able to apply effective practices to obtain the best possible result for the oil impacted animals.

For European countries, this was thought to be (and still is) a cost-efficient way of achieving an international level of preparedness, while the costs for each country are minimised. The Plan was presented to national governments, the European Commission and the main European Regional Agreements. It provides a strategic vision that Sea Alarm still uses today as a spearhead for driving European oiled wildlife preparedness at national and regional levels.  Read more about the initial project here.

Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Workshop and Handbook

This project, led by ZooMarine, Portugal, with Sea Alarm, IFAW and ICRAM as partners, brought together European marine wildlife responders from all coastal Member States to discuss oiled wildlife rehabilitation at a European level. The group shared methodologies and approaches to rehabilitating oiled marine animals, and developed a series of guidelines on the collection, cleaning, and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife as an integrated part of an oil spill response.

An international workshop, attended by 41 representatives from regulators, scientific institutions and rehabilitation organisations was organised in October 2006 in Portugal. Participants discussed the principles of cleaning and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife (especially during large incidents), leading to publication of the Handbook for the Rehabilitation of Oiled Birds in May 2007. Rather than a detailed protocol, the Handbook was designed to highlight first class principles for oiled wildlife rehabilitation, giving guidance on search and rescue, transportation, facility setup, health and safety, involvement of volunteers, compensation of costs and animal welfare issues.

This was the first coordinated effort to identify best practices for dealing with oil affected wildlife that could be made available to wildlife responders throughout Europe. It provided the foundation for later work, which continues today through the activities of the EUROWA network, in developing detailed protocols for care of oiled animals. Read more about the workshop and handbook here.

Handbook on Seabird Population Impact Assessment

The third project, led by the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (Royal NIOZ), with Sea Alarm and the University of Coruna as partners, aimed to consolidate knowledge, tools and techniques developed over the course of decades of oiled seabird incidents and chronic pollution to accurately and systematically assess the impact of oil spills on seabird populations.

In 2006 a scientific workshop in Spain brought together scientists, authorities and NGOs from across Europe to identify the main issues involved in the integration of Impact Assessment into oiled wildlife response and the wider oil spill response. The workshop goal was to define best practices for collection and necropsy of dead oiled seabirds during a spill incident, and for analysis of the data obtained from these birds.

It also explored spill case studies and examined which seasonal seabird distribution data oil spill managers would need in the early stages of an incident to aid in environmental protection decision making. The workshop concluded that impacts to seabirds from oil spills should be prevented where possible and that the process should include consultation with scientists as an integrated part of oil spill response planning.

The Handbook on Seabird Population Impact Assessment was published following the workshop, providing an internationally developed set of guidelines that can be used to design an adequate, standardised system of data collection and analysis as an integrated part of oil spill response. Access the Handbook and read more about the project here.

Continuing the mission

After the EU Community Framework ended in 2006, three further EU-funded projects were completed, focussing on the scientific side of oiled wildlife preparedness and response and strengthening European wildlife responder networks.


The RIOS (Reducing the Impact of Oil Spills) project, in which Sea Alarm and Zoomarine partnered, was led by Nordeconsult (a Swedish consultancy). The project focused on listing scientific priorities in the field of oiled wildlife response and preparedness via consultation of scientific networks. It included an international workshop in 2008 with a network of leading scientists and delivered a state-of-the-art report in which myriad research fields and topics were identified.

The list fed into the process of priorities for the 7th EU Framework Programme, for follow-up funding opportunities. Although the follow-up funding of identified scientific topics was less than expected, the discussions between research groups, individual scientists and NGO’s during the project created highly valued and durable relationships between the participants. It also led to a better definition of the scientific foundation behind the practices in wildlife response, such as the quality of modern rehabilitation protocols and the increasing post-release survival rates that have resulted from their application. Read more about the RIOS project here.


The EMPOWER project (2009), initiated and led by Sea Alarm, aimed to set up an international network of cooperating NGOs in European countries as a means to enhance wildlife response planning and preparedness throughout Europe. It was funded through the European Commission (EC)’s NGO-funding scheme. Unfortunately, a change in the EU’s funding priorities meant that EMPOWER only existed for one year.

In many ways, however, the EMPOWER project may be considered the predecessor of the EUROWA initiative. Both initiatives were designed to professionalise the contributions NGOs can provide to an integrated oiled wildlife response and to reach out to national authorities to strengthen relationships between governments and NGO’s to benefit preparedness and response activities.

Many of the EMPOWER goals and objectives have been continued through the EUROWA initiative, which was founded as an EU project in 2015-2016, led by Sea Alarm, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Wildlife Rescue Centre Ostend (WRCO), WWF Finland and ProBird (Germany). EUROWA concentrated on the development of a wide range of good practice guides and related training modules, but also went a step further in setting up and delivering an international team of experts and their equipment, that can be mobilised between countries for wildlife response assistance. Read more about the the EMPOWER project here and learn more about EUROWA here.

Legacy of the EU projects

Over the years, Sea Alarm has been a catalyst in forming coalitions and consortia and developing successful projects under EU funding schemes. Each of the EU projects has delivered measurable results, and over the years these projects have harnessed ideas, philosophies, good practice and cooperation between organisations and experts.

Whereas government agencies in European countries are still moving slowly to integrate, plan and prepare for oiled wildlife response, the EU signature on these projects has helped to create credibility for defining and promoting standards. With some additional processes taking place in parallel, e.g. establishing policy in Regional Agreements, working with the oil industry, working on preparedness in progressive countries, Sea Alarm has made sure that wildlife response and preparedness is taken quite seriously.

The European projects have been instrumental in making progress in oiled wildlife response, allowing experts and organisations to come together, and creating a strong joint message that is difficult to ignore. The website that was created during the first EU project in 2006/2007,, still the heart of all European progress made, captures the myriad of information built up over 20 years. Even as seas become cleaner and spills decrease over time, the need for preparedness has not gone away. The benefits of having a dynamic and professional response system were demonstrated during the Bow Jubail incident response in 2018. That event demonstrated the huge progress made since the beginning of the millennium.

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