COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is a pneumonia of unknown cause first detected in Wuhan, China and reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 31st December 2019. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30thJanuary 2020 as the spread of the virus became global.
In March, as the spread of the disease continued to gather pace, the Marine Mammal Observer Association (MMOA) forum received its first COVID-19 related post as it seemed the then epidemic would only get worse and MMOA members became concerned for the impact of the virus on the Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) industry. These concerns were soon validated as the number of cases and the number of affected countries continued to climb, prompting the WHO to declare it a pandemic on 11th March; a pandemic within which we are still well and truly embroiled. All but everything came to a grinding halt, worldwide stock markets reported their largest weekly declines since the 2008 financial crisis and the socio-economic realities started to hit home. As ill-prepared countries became concerned at the rate of infection both overseas and at home, borders closed, internal travel bans were imposed and lockdown on all but essential travel outside of the home were put in place.
As MMOs, our industry relies on the free travel of personnel to join vessels all over the world, our passports laden with rare stamps and work visas. The restrictions imposed on both internal and international travel as well as the financial implications to the industries upon which our work relies, both likely to play a major part in changing our industry. How will the oil and gas industry respond to this new crash, just five years on from the 2015 slump? Will the renewables industry, a sector that has seen considerable growth in the last 10 years, continue to grow? All questions that unfortunately, will play out in time, potentially a long time. There are few who question that this will affect us for years to come, there is an inevitability about it which we all must now accept.
(MMOA Members from all around the globe during the pandemic)
So what are the short-term impacts, for which we have already realised and will continue to deal with in the coming months? It now seems apparent there is indeed a reduced availability of work available to MMOs as projects get cancelled or delayed and companies limit operations to only the essential. Travel restrictions mean internationals are no longer able to be considered for rotations mobilising in other countries and personnel are either left on rotation for seemingly endless rotation periods and unable to be relieved or at home with the uncertainty of not being able to work.
“Our industry is as unpredictable as ever - complicated further by C19 - however I approach every job as though it is a bid until the travel arrangements are made. “
- Jon Kenny, MMOA Committee Member & UK-based Freelance MMO
This situation is unsustainable, both for the safety and wellbeing of seafarers but also the safe operation of projects. Longer rotations may well become the easiest and cheapest option to clients unless the urgent calls from the heads of the maritime, labour and aviation organizations for action on crew changes and keyworker designations are realised (Read full statement here). Some projects that have engaged in crew change however have implemented a 14 day quarantine period upon arrival to the mobilisation port for all personnel. Personnel are monitored onshore before being clear to join the vessel crew, a cost absorbed by the client, at least at present. Will it be long before clients try to shift some, if not all, of this cost to MMOs and other freelance personnel, desperate to get back to work?
Increased uncertainty and added competition for positions are stressors we cannot avoid. Knock-on effects of long rotations offshore include the feeling of loneliness and isolation, and the uncertainty around work opportunities for MMOs at home breeds financial worries. Both of these extremes are affecting optimum mental health and wellbeing, which are important for those who work away from home, especially those who work offshore. For those experiencing these hardships, take a moment to process and normalise your concerns and remember, the very nature of our industry, especially as freelancers, places us amongst the most resilient to the uncertainties with work we currently face.
In the mid-term (6 to 12 months from now), companies will adapt to restrictions, some restrictions may be lifted and more control measures put in place to better limit the spread of infection in the offshore industry. We will learn to live with them, we may find eight week rotations become the new six week norm and pre-mobilisation testing and quarantine become commonplace. But, this all depends on the mid-term projections for the industries upon which we rely upon for our services. Rotations to accept may not be there in the first place, of course.
““We have experienced a lot of change in our industry in a short period of time. From the rise and fall of oil prices, the increase in renewable energy projects, economic recessions across various countries and now a pandemic. Uncertainty is now part of our profession and we shall continue to persevere.”
- Ashley Noseworthy, MMOA Committee Member & CEO Edgewise Environmental Ltd
In reality, we can only really speculate on the longer term impacts of the pandemic but it is likely that there is a notable decline in oil exploration and seismic surveys. Forecasts suggest that more than half of the world’s planned licensing rounds are likely to be cancelled this year due to the combined effect of the pandemic and the ongoing oil price war (Read full article here) .This, coupled with larger organisations tightening the purse strings or looking to smooth out the impacts over a longer time period, will inevitably bring uncertainty yet. Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and weaker commodity prices, Neptune Energy (an international Exploration & Production company) had a strong first quarter but still decided to push back several project start dates to smoothen investments through 2020-2022 (Read full article here). This may offer insight into how the wider industry is planning to counteract the long-term uncertainty, suggesting the mid-term continue to show slow progress but the long-term provides more certainty.
So, what advice can we offer to MMOs now and what do we consider important actions for you to take? Well, our overarching advice is pretty simple: to stay safe but be proactive and use this time wisely, assessing each and every opportunity as you would do naturally:
- First of all, take care of your personal health and wellbeing because it really is the number one priority. Follow guidelines to minimise the risk of infection from COVID-19 but also, take a moment to consider your mental health. Undoubtedly, stress and anxiety is elevated amongst most in the industry right now, whether that be as a result of being away for extended periods of time or not being away at all and worrying about finances. Understand that these thoughts and feelings, are both natural and temporary so take a moment to digest and normalise your anxieties.
- Definitely avoid falling into the trap of driving down industry day rates by accepting lower rates in the panic to secure work. Now is a time when finances are stretched at all levels meaning there is an inevitable wobble in day rates in motion. Set your rate and stick to it, it is your experience and knowledge that is being valued.
- Avoid travel for work unless absolutely necessary, assess your finances and see if you are better to just sit low for a few months, wait for the infection rates to come down and allow time for clients and contractors to put more refined control measures in place.
- Check your insurance policy is up to date and COVID-19 secure. Does it cover COVID-19 related medevacs?
- Consider drafting an arsenal of questions you will ask potential employers regarding COVID-19 specific measures such as pre-mobilisation testing, travel plans and quarantine requirements, vessel COVID action plans and social distancing measures, infection response procedures, COVID-19 specific PPE and history of project / vessel infections. Remember, you have the right to stay safe onboard and can raise your concerns if you see unsafe conditions, especially with COVID-19 related conditions.
- The MMOA is a firm believer that MMOs should aspire to improve their skills as an MMO and to further their knowledge – belong to a professional body where information and code of practice is promoted. Have you considered membership with the MMOAand could you make use of their recent partnership with the (Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology) to receive free membership and start your journey towards Chartered status? Others from a wider work scope include IEMA, CIWEM, SocEnv, EcoCanada.
- Update your CV! Too often CVs are out of date, poorly presented or contain typos and errors which suggest no time or effort has been afforded to them. Remember, as a freelance biologist, these are your ticket to financial stability, treasure them and take this period of downtime as an opportunity to refine them!
- Be proactive with journal articles and research papers and take a moment to focus on your own Continuing Professional Development (CPD). How can you improve your CV to become more competitive during a potential downturn? Expand your knowledge and remind yourself why you first started in this industry.
- Network and update employers / agencies on availability remotely. Speak with peers and colleagues about work opportunities and make yourself prominent but also use any contacts you have to get a better understanding of the current COVID-19 situation in a country you have work lined up for.
- Identify financial support schemes in your country put in place as a result of COVID-19. For example, if you are a freelance MMO and based in the UK, you may be able to claim support through the Self-Employment Income Scheme. Check to see if you are eligible here.
As the dynamics of the current situation change on a daily basis, the MMOA want to reassure all of our members, corporate sponsors and supporting organisations that we believe there is light at the end of tunnel and that the industry will recover, albeit steadily. Be safe but be proactive and look to diversify and develop your capabilities wherever you can.
The MMOA will do our part and continue in our aims of providing a collective voice for MMOs and promoting the MMO profession in the offshore industry. We will continue to provide a point of contact for advice and consultation on marine mammal mitigation issues, improving/reviewing guidelines and now, more important now than ever before, your safety at sea.
We would like to hear from all MMOA members on this topic! Please use the forum to share your experiences of work and travel during COVID-19.
Gary Robinson - MMOA Committee Member & Operations Director at Ocean Ecology Ltd
29th May 2020