CLEARWATER — If officials at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium are asked to rehabilitate animals injured by a massive oil spill spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, they will be ready to respond, CEO David Yates said Monday morning.
"CMA is in routine communication with Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries on both ends, and we look forward to working with each agency should the oil reach our area, or if they can use our assistance elsewhere," Yates said. "We are fully prepared to go when asked."
No private organization has the authority to perform any rescue without an invitation from the federal government, specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
So far, two facilities in the Panhandle have been activated.
If the federal government activates the aquarium, the Clearwater staff would have to undergo training to care for animals affected by the oil.
"This specific training we're talking about for oil spills, very few people have been trained on that," Yates said. "Nobody in this area has been trained on that. (Those federal agencies) have to come in on their own and say, 'We're going to choose you, you, and you' and they train those individuals or groups."
The aquarium has experience pitching in after catastrophic events, said Danielle O'Neil, the manager of the aquarium's sea turtle program.
After this year's cold spell and the Red Tide outbreak in 2005, the aquarium cared for injured sea turtles.
"We have the ability to take in numerous sea turtles if need be," O'Neil said. "We have a brand new sea turtle rehabilitation area in our back yard."
Abby Stone, the head trainer and manager of the marine mammals program at the aquarium, said information gathered so far suggests that the effect on whales and dolphins might be less than the effect on sea turtles, birds and manatees. They spend less time at the surface, she said.
The aquarium isn't the only local facility equipped to stabilize oil-coated wildlife. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a nonprofit avian hospital in Indian Shores, has more than 300 volunteers on standby, spokeswoman Michelle Glean Simoneau said.