The very first response Sea Alarm was invited to. An oil spill had occurred in the middle of one of the most famous, precious and vulnerable ecosystems in the world. The Charles Darwin Foundation invited Sea Alarm and the Dutch Foreign office assisted with logistics.
Sea Alarm mobilised with marine mammal experts and worked alongside the IFAW Emergency team. Between mobilisation and arrival, the spilled oil had moved away from the archipelago and the few sea lions that had been impacted had already been treated on the beaches by local veterinarians. While oil was reported on different islands from day to day, the international experts and expertise groups were on stand-by, organising themselves around the very limited resources on the islands, whilst also transferring knowledge to local responders. Further oil reports were never confirmed and demobilisation took place after almost two weeks. The incident demonstrated the challenges of a remote location, where responding on any larger scale than just a few animals would be extremely difficult. It also demonstrated that the willingness of the international community to help out in such a situation is huge. Multiple countries sponsored national oil spill teams and specialists to the Galapagos islands, on invitation of the Ecuadorian government, but there was not a lot for them to do. It also demonstrated that local resources (hotels etc.) can become overwhelmed, as media personnel also flooded into the islands. This is a key issue for response planners to take into consideration.
The vessel’s P&I club and the IOPC Fund requested Sea Alarm to mobilise to Spain when oil from the broken tanker was expected to impact wildlife. The complex geography of the Galician coast brought many challenges, as did the fragmentation of regional wildlife authorities, the number of national organisations that self-mobilised to deal with wildlife and the number of international response groups and individual experts that arrived to see if they could help. Sea Alarm linked up with one of the authorities that oversaw the response in the northern part of Galicia and quickly teamed up with IFAW’s Emergency Team that was working with the authority that oversaw the response on the west coast. In a rather chaotic and scattered response with so many parties, Sea Alarm took the role of managing the information streams, mapping out who was doing what, securing a central administration and communication of quantitative data from day to day. The team also worked on filling identified gaps, writing a response strategy for the authorities, making sure that all parties were informed of what was going on and assisting authorities in making decisions and facilitating a better and smoother response. Sea Alarm brought the activities of a scientific team on the collection and systematic analysis of seabird corpses to the attention of the authorities. Progress made in coordination of the wildlife activities was shared with the P&I Club and IOPC Fund.
Sea Alarm was invited by the Belgian authorities to assist with the management of the response, as thousands of live and dead seabirds were arriving on the coast. The team linked up with local organisations and governmental agencies, provided advice and assisted with the management of an improvised bird rehabilitation centre. By bringing in international expertise and organising the transport of seabirds to rehabilitation centres abroad, the pressure on relatively inexperienced organisations was relieved, but the incident demonstrated that there are clear limits to the volumes of live oiled seabirds that can be rehabilitated during an oil spill. It also demonstrated the importance of well-designed facilities and functioning equipment and technology. While many animals were lost in this incident, the experience inspired Sea Alarm to develop strategies on quantitative management, the use of euthanasia as a management tool, developing protocols and training and building a European network of expertise. Other important response aspects were successful in this response, including the systematic, scientific recording and analysis of bird impacts, the use of a website to communicate factual information and the writing of a formal report by the national scientific agency on the incident and the wildlife response.
The incident took place in mid-winter, when temperatures started dropping below -15oC and ice was forming along the Estonian coast. The response started with Sea Alarm and the IFAW Emergency Response team jointly arriving in country to assess the situation, invited and facilitated by a very effective and well-connected local NGO.
It quickly became clear that an international response was needed. Sea Alarm mobilised European experts, while IFAW mobilised its own team and equipment from further afield and the search for a better rehabilitation facility got underway. This was the first response where all foreign expertise from multiple organisations were coordinated as one group, delivering the Tier-3 wildlife response that had been envisaged by key thinkers for years. The facility that was set up also included an integrated laboratory for impact assessment on seabird casualties. A wildlife command centre was set up where all available factual response data were reflected and updated. This response is still considered a milestone in demonstrating the effectiveness of mobilising international expertise in a controlled and coordinated way, blending their expertise with a local work force and multiple support services.
In the Kerch strait spill event, a storm caused multiple vessels to get into difficulties, of which one tanker was wrecked and spilled its cargo. A Russian NGO requested that Sea Alarm mobilise, then assisted with the visa process and logistics.
Sea Alarm secured two experts to round out its team to assess the oiling of potentially hundreds of birds, mainly coots. While other international teams were on standby and organising their mobilisation, the Sea Alarm team arrived within 36 hours after having received the call and joined the NGO to travel to the spill location in the Kerch Strait. The NGO also picked up a bus full of volunteers on the way to the site. On arrival at the site, it appeared that the location where the NGO was thinking to set up a wildlife response centre was very primitive and far from ideal, with no facilities and no running water. The Sea Alarm team advised not to undertake any capture of animals before a better facility location had been found and prepared. But the volunteers were unstoppable and went out the next day to capture birds, supported by the NGOs. This resulted in over a hundred birds being left in boxes outside in the freezing cold, with no further resources available for their care. When the international response groups had to cancel their mobilisation and the search for a better facility failed, there was no option left but to bring the animals to a local zoo. Local vets refused to euthanise animals and the zoo kept the animals until they died. Sea Alarm demobilised as the NGO did not want to take any responsibility for the welfare of the captured animals. Many lessons were learnt in this response, including a hard-learned one on the limits and vulnerability of Sea Alarm’s own role as an advisor under extreme and remote conditions. Again, it brought up the importance of the readiness of proper facilities before animals are “rescued” from the beach and the importance of euthanasia as an animal welfare tool, together with the need for veterinarians on-scene who are capable of performing the job.
In the course of a few years, Norway was confronted with a number of oiled wildlife incidents. Sea Alarm had facilitated the setup of a first European network of responders which included Norwegian organisations, and it was they who requested to Sea Alarm to assist with these incidents.
The Server spill (2007) and Godafoss (2011) only required a few responders to mobilise to Norway, which Sea Alarm facilitated and coordinated from its office. The Full City spill (2009) required not only a team but also a Sea Alarm expert to assist with structuring the response management. The Full City response was quite successful as it heavily involved the Norwegian authorities, including logistical support from local government. It was an important experience for the European network to work together from beginning to end of a response and demonstrated the philosophy of having trained in-country expertise that can expand their capacity by inviting colleagues they know from abroad, who work to the same standards. Although it was largely successful, the incident emphasised that standards needed to be agreed in more detail, after which dedicated training should be set up to ensure that experts can take agreed roles, avoid double work, and be more effective in passing on knowledge to volunteers. The Full City experience was well evaluated in dedicated meetings and led into the start of the international network that later became EUROWA. The involvement of the authorities in this response also facilitated the compensation of costs of all mobilised entities with the claim managed by Sea Alarm.
The MS Oliva incident happened in the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. The islands do not have an airport and are dependent on vessels that arrive once a month with supplies. Thousands of rockhopper penguins were oiled at the end of their moulting period, and the vessel owner invited SANCCOB to mobilise from South Africa by boat to assist with the care of penguins that were captured. Sea Alarm assisted SANCCOB by connecting with the vessel’s insurer, advising on contracting and setting up an international support team to assist SANCCOB with its preparation. It took SANCCOB’s one week to arrive on site by sea, and their onsite assistance was limited to only two weeks before they were scheduled on the next vessel back to Cape Town. Sea Alarm assisted SANCCOB on the way in and when they returned, but during their stay there was practically no opportunity to communicate. This response clearly demonstrated again the limitations and enormous logistic challenges of responding in a remote location. Many lessons were learned, including the importance of backing up the onsite team with a platform in which global expertise can provide advice. The vulnerability of a small response team in a remote and challenging environment was again demonstrated. This brought many new insights related to negotiating contracts and liabilities, and the importance of anticipating the conditions and logistics challenges in the short time between notification and actual mobilisation.
Our most recent spill, the Bow Jubail wildlife response demonstrates the progress that has been made in the course of 20 years on planning, preparedness and response. Almost a decade of ground work in the Netherlands had delivered a response plan on the basis of which the authorities and NGO response groups can cooperate. Many years of cooperation between European response groups that had materialised in the forming of the EUROWA network and EUROWA standards allowed European experts to blend in with the local capacity of their Dutch colleagues. The global cooperation as part of the GOWRS project ensured that colleagues from outside Europe could easily integrate in to bring in additional strengths and fill gaps. Sea Alarms long term involvement in the Netherlands preparedness programme and its coordinating role in Europe allowed for an immediate and pro-active mobilisation of resources, and a structured approach to setting up the temporary tent-based rehabilitation facility that was logistically supported by the authorities. Of the many lessons learnt, the most important was that the pre-investment into capabilities and preparedness pay off during an incident. This incident took place in the middle of a harbour area in the midst of a warm summer when the public enjoying the outdoors literally saw white swans turning black within minutes. If the authorities had not had a plan for how to deal with the hundreds of swans reported on the national news, their reputation would have been at stake. As it was, a well-defined solution could be offered and demonstrated, which turned out to be extremely successful.