Oiled Wildlife Response

When an oil spill is threatening areas known to be important for marine wildlife, the mobilisation of a wildlife response will likely be necessary.  A wildlife response centre must be set up as part of the wider oil spill response, then options for wildlife management can be considered and a strategy determined. Mobilisation of experts, trained work forces, facilities and equipment will then be needed.

Wildlife response activities may take place at sea, on shorelines and in specialised facilities further inland. Responding to an oiled wildlife incident may involve an attempt to prevent wildlife from becoming oiled and/or the treatment of animals that do become oiled. See Response Options  for information on the various response options.

The tiered response system

Effective oil spills response requires equipment and trained personnel to be readily available. But spills can vary in size from a few litres to thousands of tonnes and the type of oil spilled can range from light diesel, which very quickly disperses to heavy crude, which may persist for years. In addition the risk to wildlife will be dependent on species found in the area and time of year when the spill occurs.  Finally, severe weather and/or very remote locations may restrict the ability to respond to oiled wildlife.
Once each of these factors is taken into consideration, a determination can be made regarding the level of response to initate. To help with the planning and decision-making process a three-tiered system is utilised.

Three levels of response

A Tier 1 response is generally initiated for small, localized spills in areas where personnel and equipment are available. In some cases, however, what appears to be a small locally manageable spill grows into a Tier 2 response. The amount of oil spilled may increase if responders cannot stop the leak in a pipeline, a disabled ship that was not previously leaking may break up in heavy seas releasing its bunker and/or cargo oil, or weather conditions (wind and waves) may cause the oil to spread over long distances very quickly.

A small spill may also be designated a Tier 2 spill if it occurs in a remote location where resources are limited and assistance from outside the area will be needed. Medium sized incidents are generally considered Tier 2 but once again, if the spill occurs in a remote area it may be designated a Tier 3 response because assistance must be mobilised from great distances. Large oil spills are generally handled at the Tier 3 level, but even here the response may be influenced by other factors. A large amount of oil spilled at a refinery or storage facility may be contained within concrete embankments or dykes built for such purposes, resulting in a Tier 1 type response, handled at the local level.

How response capabilities are measured

Having designated levels of response capability is the cornerstone of planning for oil spill incidents. Governments, industry and wildlife rehabilitators look at the likelihood of a spill occurring in a particular area, what equipment and trained personnel are already in place, what resources are nearby, and other factors. Tier 1 designation is based on the preparedness of the local responders. If the incident is small enough to require no outside assistance, it is considered a Tier 1 response. Tier 2 and Tier 3, on the other hand, require help from other agencies or organisations. This is where agreed definitions and protocols become particularly important.

Tiered response relies on pre-incident planning and training to ensure all parties understand their roles, equipment necessary to respond is in place and in working order, and personnel are trained and available. Boundaries between the Tiers are somewhat fluid as oil spills are often difficult to assess accurately in the beginning. For example, a grounded container ship leaking oil may initially be considered a Tier 2 situation and response is initiated at that level. If the leak is small and weather is favourable, it may be possible to temporarily control the leak and remove remaining oil on the ship without fully mobilising Tier 2 response. Or the leak may be worse than expected, in which case, mobilisation is increased to Tier 3 level.

Additional factors in categorising oiled wildlife response

In an oiled wildlife response the amount of oil spilled does not always correspond to the number of animals oiled and there is not always a nearby trained oiled wildlife response team. Local and national governments play a role in determining how oiled wildlife will be responded to. Most importantly, there are a limited number of organisations and individuals qualified to appropriately respond to an incident involving oiled wildlife.

This means that Tier 1 for oiled wildlife response can only happen in an area where there are wildlife rehabilitators with experience and facilities with specialised equipment. Many first time incidents have to be handled as Tier 2, with experts and equipment being brought in from other areas. In some cases these incidents have led to the development of local expertise and either stockpiling of equipment in mobile units for quick response or construction of new facilities for wildlife rehabilitation that allow for oiled wildlife response which will allow for Tier 1 response in future spills.

In a Tier 3 oiled wildlife response, thousands of animals may be affected, as happened in South Africa during the Treasure spill in 2000, or the area affected may be remote, as was the case in the MS Olivia spill in the Tristan da Cunha Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In such cases, experienced personnel from all around the world work together to care for the animals affected.