Saving sea birds from spills
Oil sPills can be lethal for our coastal birds, but a new union of animal protection groups is training volunteers to be ready for action if disaster strikes in the future
Owner: pauline beades, from springhill, garristown, co dublin
Animals: pauline is 'tube feeding' a toy bird
Background: pauline is one of the organisers of a training day for wildlife rescue volunteers
Oil spills at sea are common: millions of gallons of oil are continually being shipped around the world to supply the needs of our fuel-hungry culture. It's not surprising that from time to time, oil escapes from the vessels carrying it. There are several different ways that this can happen: the classic example is the wreckage of an oil tanker, as happened in New Zealand recently. In other cases, the source of oil can remain a mystery, with suspicion resting on malpractice, such as unscrupulous ship owners cleaning out bilge tanks with seawater to save money.
Oil does not disperse easily: it floats on the surface of the water, eventually drifting ashore. It's an unpleasant, unsightly type of pollution, and, for wildlife, it can be lethal. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable: in the worst cases, they're coated in thick oily slime, but it only takes a few drops of oil to cause serious health problems. The natural waterproofing and insulation of their feathers is destroyed, causing water logging and chilling. The oil is toxic too; many birds die of poisoning.
Ireland has a long coastline -- more than 3,000km or the equivalent of driving from Dublin to Cork 12 times -- which means that there's a high risk that an oil spill at sea will wash onto our shores from time to time. There have been oil spills in the past -- in Dublin Bay in 1998, and a Russian Navy spill near Wexford in 2009, and in each instance, the lack of preparation to deal with wildlife casualties was highlighted.
The Irish Coast Guard is the State body charged with dealing with oil spills at sea, working closely with the European Maritime Safety Agency.
Their focus is primarily the practical aspects of cleaning up the pollution itself. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for dealing with wildlife casualties, but their main aim is not to rescue individual birds. This means that if a stretch of beach was littered with badly oiled sea birds, the official policy may be to kill all the birds in a humane fashion. Past experience has demonstrated that this approach is unpopular with the public. The birds are innocent victims: they don't deserve to die. If they can be rescued, why should this not be attempted?
Pauline has been working with a group of voluntary organisations to change the official approach to wildlife caught up in oil spills. The Irish Seal Sanctuary, Birdwatch Ireland, ISPCA, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Coastwatch and Irish Wildlife Trust have written a joint "letter of comfort" for the Coast Guard, agreeing to work together in the event of an oil pollution incident involving wildlife.
The organisations have been preparing joint teams of volunteers so when there's another crisis, they will be ready to step into action to rescue the wildlife.
There will be two phases of wildlife rescue. The first stage involves volunteers combing the beaches, gathering affected sea birds and giving them life-saving first aid. The second stage is to transfer the rescued birds to field hospitals for longer-term cleaning and rehabilitation so that they can be successfully released into the wild. It's likely that international organisations may be invited to fly in equipment and staff for these specialised field hospitals, but it will be up to Irish volunteers to deal with that crucial first stage of rescuing birds on the beaches.
As part of long-term planning, Pauline spent last weekend with volunteers in Limerick, as guests of the Shannon Estuary Anti-Pollution Team (SEA-PT).
Visiting experts from European wildlife rescue organisations gave lectures and demonstrations on how to deal with oiled wildlife. An equipment store has been purchased, and a team of "first responders" is now in place.
When the next oil spill happens, they hope to be ready to step into action to rescue those injured and sick oil-covered sea birds.