Rather than being washed up covered in thick black oil these seabirds, mostly guillemots, have been found on the coast from Cornwall to Hampshire covered in a white sticky substance. RSPCA deputy chief inspector John Pollock, who has been leading the rescue mission in Dorset, described the substance as “white, odourless and globular”. He added: “It is like a silicone sealer. The best way I can think to describe it is ‘sticky Vaseline’.”.
As well as guillemots there are a few razorbills, puffins and cormorants. I was interested to read in the RSPB release that some of the guillemots are in breeding plumage (and are therefore probably birds that breed locally in the southwest) and some are still in winter plumage (and are probably birds that nest in Scotland or perhaps Norway.
Most recovered birds (dead or alive) seem to have come from the Dorset area around Portland Bill.
This incident has been a perfect story for the media and it has had quite a lot of coverage. There are dead birds, and live birds, and there are people in white coats cleaning oiled birds in an attempt to rescue them – all good footage. The geographic scale of the impact is wide and involves ‘hundreds’ of birds. The actual number of birds involved is difficult to assess and allows plenty of speculation. The identity of the polluting substance is unknown and its source, presumably some boat moving through the English Channel, is also unknown – there is an air of mystery.But how important is this incident – and incidents of this type? There are a few million pairs of guillemots in Europe – mostly in the UK and Iceland – and occasional losses of hundreds or even thousands of birds are a drop in the ocean (as it were). And certainly ‘saving’ a few tens of birds for re-release into the seas is an act of kindness to individual birds but a matter of no consequence in conservation terms as it will make no long term difference to population levels. Indeed, I remember a scientific paper which suggested that the survival rates of released ‘saved’ oiled seabirds wasn’t particularly good. So cleaning up, feeding up and releasing oiled seabirds is something that makes us feel good because we are ‘doing something’ and because it does, perhaps, make the lives of many individual birds better, but it doesn’t make the future for guillemots as a whole better.
Clearly, cleaning oiled seabirds is dealing with the symptoms of a problem rather than dealing with the problem as a whole. It is a humanitarian (or a guillemotarian) act but it doesn’t solve the problem of releasing toxic substances into the seas. As I write, we don’t seem to know what the substance is or whence it came so we aren’t even in a particularly good position to enforce existing legislation that makes this type of release illegal.The RSPB release links this event to the need for Marine Protected Areas – which is understandable and odd at the same time. Understandable because there is a great need for MPAs and this government is being particularly negligent in implementing the Marine and Coastal Access Act to give us some. But odd in that in the fluid marine environment it matters hardly at all whether oil is released in or out of MPAs because it will flow into and out of them. There are no fences around protected sites at sea.
And so to revitalise the marine environment (which we need to do for our own good as well as that of marine biodiversity) we need a much more sustainable approach to using it. We need marine spatial planning, marine protected areas, well-regulated fisheries and regulations that prevent release of pollutants (as in this case). Many wildlife NGOs are working for those aims but government is making very little progress across this wide front.
And therefore when I see guillemots being hosed down and gently cleaned I have mixed emotions. It is a classic example of dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes; it is a classic example of us acting with our hearts rather than our heads; but it is also better to do something than nothing; and if we can harness the care that we feel for injured individuals to a better outcome for injured habitats and ecosystems then both will face a much better future.
We are dealing here with the wildlife equivalent of much emergency aid for the less developed world; the images tug at our heartstrings, we want to help but we do too little to prevent a recurrence of the problem.