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Oiled wildlife response featured in Baltic Sea exercise: BALEX DELTA

BALEX DELTA is the largest annual transnational oil spill response exercise in the Baltic Sea region.  This year, the exercise was held in Kotka, Finland from the 23rd-25th of August and led by the Finnish Border Guard. The exercise included a national shoreline and oiled wildlife response exercise which was coordinated by Kymenlaakso Rescue Services.

Member organisations of The Finnish Voluntary Rescue Service network (including EUROWA network member WWF Finland), and volunteers practiced shoreline assessment, search and collection of oiled wildlife, conducted an oil collection simulation, and supported functions such as management, coordination, transport and healthcare of wildlife.

The BALEX DELTA was a great opportunity for oiled wildlife responders in Finland to test the robustness of their draft oiled wildlife response plan and level of preparedness. The aims of the oiled wildlife response exercise were:

  • To establish a wildlife rehabilitation centre and make it ready to receive oiled birds from the field within the first day (finalise reception, intake, and stabilisation areas)
  • To test oiled wildlife search and rescue in an archipelago setting
  • To test transport of oiled birds from islands to the rehabilitation centre
  • To assess if and how an identified building of opportunity in Kotka harbour could be used in a real large-scale oil spill incident

Due to the Covid-19 situation, the number of people participating in the oiled wildlife response exercise was limited; 11 experts affiliated with 4 different organisations were involved in the practical work. The Finnish mobile bird cleaning unit was transported to the site by the Eastern Uusimaa rescue services on Monday 23rd August and the oiled wildlife rehabilitation centre’s stabilisation section was set up and ready to receive oiled animals on the afternoon of Tuesday 24th.

In the field, search and collection teams worked on Tuesday 24th to capture and transport 21 oiled birds (hunting decoys), which were subsequently taken into care. Rough weather prevented the remaining 25 decoys from being caught and transported during the exercise, serving as a reminder of the practical challenges of search and collection of oiled wildlife during an emergency.

On the evening of 24th August an informal information session allowed EUROWA network members to test the network’s Standard Operating Procedures. During this session, WWF Finland provided an overview of the incident and measures taken so far. Based on this information, network members evaluated the situation and possibilities for the EUROWA network to provide assistance to Finland.

The wildlife scenario identified nine areas of special concern for wildlife in the vicinity of the exercise area and estimated that between 1,000 and 6,000 birds representing more than 20 different species would typically be found in the area mid-August. And the exercise provided a valuable opportunity to test practical arrangements and procedures for oiled wildlife response in Finland across a range of stakeholders.

Strategic take-home messages from the exercise were:

Situational awareness and integration:

  • The oiled wildlife response organisation needs to have continuous access to situation awareness tools and to the oil spill command centre. Information is needed about the status of oil collection, oil drift forecasts and the extent of shoreline oiling to help guide and plan oiled wildlife response efforts.

Training and exercises:

  • Joint authority-volunteer organisation aims should be set up for all exercises. This would benefit communications, logistics and situational awareness of all actors involved.
  • The Finnish oiled wildlife response organisation depends on a few key persons, and the organisation needs to be broadened, with more experts trained for key positions within the oiled wildlife response organisation. This will be especially important in large-scale spills which require a long-lasting response.

Preparedness and decision-making:

  • A few buildings of opportunity (3-4) need to be identified along the Finnish coast, to make detailed plans for setting up wildlife response facilities (considering air conditioning, heating, waste management, electricity, transport etc.)
  • The current gap in identifying the authority responsible for oiled wildlife, and lack of an officially adopted oiled wildlife response plan, are impairing decision-making and communications during a spill. Internal alerting procedures are unclear, and official protocols for calling on international assistance, via for example the EUROWA network, need to be put in place.

Finnish oiled wildlife response stakeholders including WWF Finland and the concerned authorities will examine and consider these observations for their future oiled wildlife response planning. The experience from this exercise will also be incorporated into exercise guidelines being developed under the EUROWA-2 project.

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