Oil spill update - answers to your questions

Hi all,

I don't want to steal any thunder from Dr. Innis since he is reporting from the "front line" of the oil spill, however I wanted to provide answers to some great questions from a few of you. Questions from two anonymous readers are below in yellow with my answers following.

Anonymous asked... Because of the extreme emergency as a result of the oil spill are rescuers now allowed to remove animals from the water before "stranding"?

This is a great question for several reasons. First, the laws are different between sea turtles and marine mammals. Marine mammals regulations seem a bit more strict in that any animal still free swimming in the water is not considered stranded and therefore is outside the permitted activities of even authorized stranding responders. Usually rescuers are not permitted to remove marine mammals from the water unless they are entangled or severely debilitated. There are however occasions where permission is granted. The decision to remove a dolphin or whale from the water is made by the NOAA Fisheries Service with the highest level of human safety as the primary consideration. Whales, dolphins and even the smallest in the cetacean family, the harbor porpoise, are incredibly strong animals. Remember that these animals do not understand that we are trying to help, our presence can send the animals into fight or flight and they can become very dangerous to work around. I'm sure the strict regulations are there for human protection purposes as I've seen the dangers of working with these animals up close.

Sea turtles also should not be removed from the water without authorization from the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service. In general sea turtles are smaller and lack the powerful tail stock of the cetaceans so it is a little easier to remove them from the water. Usually sea turtles are only removed from the water if they are entangled or floating at the surface in distress.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has granted permission for a team of sea turtle experts to conduct a vessel based survey with the aid of spotter pilots. The pilots are directing the vessels to floating oiled sea turtles. Judging from the number of turtles that have gone to the Aquarium of the America's since the surveys started - it appears to be a success.

Anonymous asked... Thank you for keeping us up to date on this awful situation. Can you advise on what types of certifications are needed to help with rescue efforts?

Another great question. There are several certifications required to work within the oil response system. Since my area of expertise is with wildlife, I'll assume this question is directed at the animal recovery efforts. Before describing the certifications the most important qualification is experience with the target species. Volunteers with just the proper certifications will most likely not be called upon unless they have the knowledge base with the specific species involved. Anatomy, basic biology, dietary needs and feeding behavior, general behavior, animal handling, basic and advanced clinical experience and more will be required to work with the marine mammals and sea turtles. I am not well versed in the bird areas so I will not speak for those teams.

As for the actual certifications the most important in this case is HAZWOPER training. This is a 40 hour course with mandatory annual renewal classes. The HAZWOPER course teaches the responders how to work around hazardous materials, safety techniques, emergency rescue and response and more. In addition, general oil spill wildlife response is also needed. Lastly, minimum levels of ICS (Incident Command System--learn more about ICS on this previous post) are essential. I am not sure that ICS is required but it is essential for those who respond since the language is unique to emergency responders. Those without ICS training will have a difficult time understanding the system. There are possibly more requirements but these are the basic ones for the sea turtle and marine mammal responders that I am aware of.

Thanks for the great questions!

BREAKING NEWS (seriously what timing!)... With the number of animals increasing daily, I have just received an inquiry regarding my availability to report to the Aquarium of the America's. This is hot off the press folks, I don't even have any details yet. I should know with certainty by tomorrow if I'll be reporting to the oil spill, the needs are still being defined. If called, I look forward to joining my colleagues in the effort to save endangered oiled sea turtles.

- Connie


  1. I thank all of you who are doing whatever you can to help these animals. My question is: do you have enough volunteers to help out? You mentioned the different training courses required to assist in various situations; where and when are such cousres offered? In great times of need such as this, are there ways to expedite the process for folks who want to help (if you need more hands)? Thank you!! ~KI

  2. Hi K.I. Thanks for a great question and your support/interest in distressed wildlife. I am actually not sure about the volunteer situation for this oil spill. All activities are being directed by NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state wildlife agencies and the four designated holding facilities. Each of the four facilities is located proximal to the spill itself. If I understand correctly these agencies are responsible for determining their needs in terms of veterinarians, vet technicians, biologists and volunteers. I was contacted recently regarding my availability to report to the oil spill region to aid in sea turtle care but am still waiting for my orders. The logistics during events as large as this one do take time so I'll wait patiently for my instructions.

    As the coordinator for large mass stranding events for many years and sea turtle cold stun events involving over 100 animals at a time, I can tell you that the logistics of organizing a large scale response effort is not an easy task. My guess is that they will only call in resources as they need them. I know it sounds funny but having more people than you need can slow down the process. They'll have to find lodging for them all, keep them fed and coordinate transport back and fourth from lodging to the facility. At times like these it's best to call in only who you need and work in efficient teams. If the event calls for a large team then by all means bring in as many as it takes to do the job.

    As for the training courses (at least for the wildlife responders), I do not know them all off the top of my head - it would take some research. Officials did create an abbreviated online refresher course for the HAZWOPER training, however it is limited to those who can provide evidence of an advanced level of experience working with sea turtles or marine mammals. I don't think the other courses are available in an abbreviated format. The mandatory 40hr HAZWOPER course is offered in different places at different times (for non paraprofessionals I believe this is required for eligibility). I know many stranding network members had to travel to California for the last one. I'm not sure where the next one will be held.

    If I learn of volunteer opportunities open to the public I will post them on this blog.

    Thanks again for your support.