The first example of a UK-wide co-ordinated effort to help marine wildlife through the collaboration of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) is generally acknowledged as the 1988 seal epizootic. As large numbers of common seals started dying around the North Sea region, Greenpeace and the RSPCA jointly established what became known as The Seal Assessment Unit in Docking, in Norfolk. Teams from other organisations and numerous volunteers joined in with the efforts at Docking to help the large numbers of stricken seals. The volunteers included representatives from dive organisations who found that their aquatic skills, excellent teamwork and water craft could be put to good purpose. Many of the individuals involved in these efforts remained in contact after the event and their enthusiasm and interest in further rescue work created an initiative that eventually led to the British Divers Stranding Meeting in October 1993, hosted by the University of Greenwich. Various groups and individuals had realised the need for better coordination, cooperation and resource sharing when dealing with stricken marine mammals.
Prior to 1988, several organisations and individuals had been striving to help stranded cetaceans more or less independently. For example, the RSPCA produced the first edition of First Aid for Stranded Cetaceans in 1982. Ten years later, in 1992, they convened a meeting of experts to review and improve the original text (an initiative coordinated by RSPCA Wildlife Officer, Helen McLachlan). They also concluded that a supplementary text specifically for vets should be produced. The second meeting of the nascent Coalition (this time called the Marine Mammal Rescue/British Divers Stranding Meeting), again held at the University of Greenwich, was chaired jointly by myself and Alan Knight, in February 1994. The record of the meeting reports that after lunch, Alan Knight formally proposed the setting up of a UK strandings network and notes that Mark Simmonds was asked to lead this initiative. At the third meeting, in August of the same year, the participants agreed a mission statement and the main objective of the group, then known as the Strandings Network, was to facilitate the rescue of marine wildlife and that the principal, but not necessarily exclusive, focus of the group was cetaceans.
Although the acronym MARC (Marine Animal Rescue Coalition) was not adopted until the autumn meeting in 1994, I would suggest that for the purpose of defining the origins of the Coalition, we identify the October 1993 meeting, which provided its ideological focus and impetus. This event was also the first serious outreach to the numerous interested groups and individuals to form a viable coalition. So the Coalition has been in existence for nearly 29 years.
The early focus of Coalition work was capacity building, with an emphasis on bringing into the Coalition all the individuals and organisations involved in cetacean rescue across the UK. We were also very concerned that some stranded animals were being treated inappropriately and therefore cruelly, due to a lack of understanding by their would-be rescuers. One of our earliest initiatives was described in the minutes of the August 1994 meeting as the Stopping Amateur Refloats Poster Campaign!
Work towards the improvement of cetacean rescue began to take two complementary routes dating from about this time. The MARC forum focused on technical development and, simultaneously, the divers and other rescue groups focused on developing teams of appropriately trained rescuers to use the approaches defined through the work of the Coalition. The rescue groups also worked hard to increase the numbers of trained rescuers around the UK.
The priorities of the MARC meetings have evolved since its earliest days but the key themes and working practices have remained a constant feature. The February 1994 meeting, for example, considered reports from a number of working groups (the primary method by which the Coalition has continued to progress its objectives) focusing on Equipment, Training, Public Awareness and Networking. The building of public awareness and networking in the first few years of Coalition work included consideration of the creation of a separate overarching charity that would hold, as one of its primary functions, a central rescue fund. This option was sometimes linked to discussions about the establishment of a permanent rescue facility. It was also decided very early on, that MARC itself should not be an organization in its own right principally to avoid the danger that it would compete for funds with the rescue organisations themselves.
Text: Mark P. Simmonds (MARC Chair)
Photo: Rose Summers / BDMLR