Reports indicate that the oil spill is contained. However, the south-western peninsula will continue to feel the effects as cleanup efforts, though scaled down, are ongoing. It is a disaster that continues to impact the health of people, animals (domestic and wild) and the environment.
This spill activated the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) to Tier 3. A Tier 3 spill is defined as one “requiring substantial resources and support from regional or international oil spill co-operatives to mitigate effects perceived to be wide-reaching, i.e. of national or international significance”.
NOSCP Section 5 deals with a programme to address wildlife impacted by oil. Unfortunately, recent events have demonstrated that in practice, the response is inadequate. It highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive national approach to oiled wildlife that meets international standards and applies irrespective of the company that spills.
In a recent workshop on oiled wildlife hosted by bpTT participants learnt from international experts, Sea Alarm Foundation and Tri State Bird Rescue and Research, that oiled wildlife is an extremely complex challenge. It involves more than searching the area, picking animals up from the oil, washing them with a cleaning agent and releasing them or sending them off to a rehab centre.
Why oil and wildlife don’t mix
According to Tri State Bird Rescue and Research, any animal that spends all or part of its life in water can be affected. Depending on where the spill occurs this may include: marine turtles, small and marine mammals, birds, amphibians, domestic and livestock animals, fish and aquatic invertebrates. Exposure to oil can cause damage externally and internally. Briefly, animals are exposed to oil through inhalation, ingestion and transcutaneous absorption.
Internal effects include organ failure (kidney, liver, pancreas), dehydration, blood disorders, membrane, skin and eye irritation, immunosuppression, ulcers and damage to nervous, reproductive and endocrine systems.
Externally, particularly for birds, it inhibits thermoregulation, buoyancy, flight and disrupts waterproofing of the feathers. Affected animals require medical intervention. Birds are usually the most visible and frequently encountered wildlife victims of oil spills. Consequently, most responses focus on them.
Petrotrin’s response to oiled wildlife
During the first week of the spill, beaches and mangrove areas on the south-western peninsula were affected. To date, Petrotrin has provided no information on the impact on wildlife. We know that one bird, nicknamed Oily, made it to a rehab centre due in part to the actions of an independent party.
The emergence on social media of pictures and reports of dead birds and animals flopping around in oil indicated that other animals were affected.
Another oiled bird arrived on Christmas Day. Sadly, this animal died.
Remains of an IUCN Red-listed green sea turtle were found on one of the oil-covered beaches. The cause of death is unknown. The carcass never made it to the School of Veterinary Medicine for a necropsy (animal autopsy). One gentleman even claimed he saw a new species of black iguana.
These events are not the fault of in-house workers nor of Petrotrin’s contractor who were operating within parameters given to them. With the oil spill at Tier 3, assistance was mobilised and offered by organisations and individuals who have had training for oiled wildlife. This assistance was acknowledged but not acted upon. Basic questions were asked of Petrotrin on their wildlife response regarding capture, treatment techniques and release protocols.
Is there anyone who has the technical or medical training to evaluate oiled animals? What protocols are being used on-site to medically stabilise animals before transport? Is there a temporary holding centre to treat oiled wildlife onsite? Do you have reporting forms? Is there a protocol that rehab centres should follow? Were stabilisation and rehab procedures approved by a licensed veterinarian? What about the disposal of hazardous dead oiled animals? To date, these questions have not been answered.
What’s involved in a basic response to oiled wildlife?
Dealing with oiled wildlife requires a feasible plan and the capacity to implement it. A basic plan takes into consideration the prevention of wildlife being oiled; search, capture and medical stabilisation of oiled wildlife; transportation logistics; medical care before and after animals are cleaned; cleaning of animals; husbandry; data collection and documentation; release; if possible, post-release monitoring; and communication with the team and the public.
The plan functions through an Incident Command System and has three levels of activation depending on the characteristics of the spill; each with associated activities.
In summary, an oiled wildlife response requires a different type of expertise. Having experience with handling or identifying wildlife does not necessarily mean you can treat or medically manage oiled animals. It requires meaningful collaboration across agencies and sectors involving a variety of organisations and individuals. We are fortunate that some of this expertise is available in T&T.
Extracting oil and gas is a risky business. As the last weeks have demonstrated, oiled wildlife is an inevitable risk and one that should not be dismissed or neglected.
Dr Adana Mahase-Gibson is a project management professional and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. She works in the field of sustainable development with communities, government, businesses & NGOs in Trinidad and Tobago under the banner of Ecohealth. This column looks the intricate connections of human, animal and environmental health through a sustainability lens. For further information e-mail: