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Despite lower attendance and a reduced sighting rate, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) says it is “delighted” with the return of its All-Ireland Whale Watch Day last month.

Held on Saturday 20 August during Heritage Week and for the first time since 2019, on account of the COVID pandemic, this year’s event saw an overall decline in attendance (-38% on 2019) and fewer cetacean sightings (33% of sites compared to 58% in 2019).

IWDG sightings officer Pádraig Whooley, who organised the event, suggested that a confluence of factors — from windy conditions on the day to the legacy of the pandemic and even holidays abroad — may have affected the turnout.

In addition, the poor sea state at many watch sites would have affected the sighting rate, with the best results at Clogherhead in Co Louth (two dolphin species and four harbour porpoises) and Howth Head in north Co Dublin (10 harbour porpoises). No whales were recorded at any of the 18 sites.

But some 530 marine wildlife enthusiasts made a day of it around the Irish coast, and Whooley is optimistic about the future of the initiative.

“We hope that among those who attended, there will be some new members and dedicated whale watchers who are willing to volunteer some of their time and energy in furthering our understanding of the whales and dolphins that live in Irish coastal waters,” Whooley said.

“Our challenge, post-pandemic, is to find new and innovative ways to rebuild this important natural history event and so we may explore the potential for moving it to May in 2023 to coincide with Biodiversity Week.”

Published in Marine Wildlife

A pair of killer whales from a unique group have been sighted off the Kerry coast, as Radio Kerry reports.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has identified the two male orcas seen off Bray Head on Valentia Island this week as the last known surviving members of the Scottish West Coast Community Group.

And according to the Mirror, it marks the second sighting for the pair in this area within the last three months.

Studied for years by marine scientists due to isolation their genetic distinctiveness from other orcas in the North Atlantic region, these marine mammals commonly feed in the Hebridean Islands.

But they’ve previously been found as far as Scotland’s east coast, Lough Swilly in Donegal and four years ago off the Blasket Islands, likely in search of food.

Experts have feared for some time that this orca pod has been nearing its end. It last calved more than 30 years ago and has shrunk from around 20 individuals in the 1980s to just two known members, John Coe and Aquarius, as of 2016.

Published in Marine Wildlife

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) is running a series of land-based, guided whale watches in five counties around the island of Ireland this Saturday 21 May.  

Hosted in celebration of Biodiversity Week and to promote the biological recording of marine wildlife like cetaceans and basking sharks in Irish waters, these free events will be led by experienced IWDG personnel and local members who will be on hand to introduce you to the field skills involved in locating, identifying and recording the more frequently seen whale and dolphin species in Irish waters.

No pre-bookings necessary so you can just turn up on the morning with your optics, sense of adventure — and sense of humour!

Whale watches are taking place this Saturday morning in the following locations:

  • Loop Head, Co. Clare, meeting at Lighthouse, leader Mags Daly, tel 083 8401102, email: [email protected]
  • Dun na mBó, Mullett Peninsula, Co Mayo, leader Sean Pierce, tel 086 8368736, email: [email protected]
  • Rathlin Island, Co Antrim, meeting at West Lighthouse, leader Pádraig Whooley, tel 086 3850568, email: [email protected] 
  • Howth Head, Co Dublin, meeting at Balscadden Car Park, little shop (Howth Hub), leader Dave O’Connor, tel 087 6665049, email: [email protected]
  • Cloghna Head, West Cork, meeting at Galley Head View car park, leader Denis O’Regan, tel 083 3369775, email: [email protected]

All five whale watches will take place from 10am to noon so you should arrive at your local meeting point in good time (9.50am) to ensure you don’t miss the welcome, introduction and safety briefing. 

As whale watching requires reasonable weather, watch leaders reserve the right to cancel a local watch in the event of strong winds and/or rain, so our advice as always is to keep a close eye on the local weather forecast. If in any doubt, contact your local watch leader the day before your event (details below) to avoid a wasted journey.

You should dress appropriately for conditions on the day. The IWDG suggests warm and waterproof clothing and sturdy footwear if the forecast is marginal. If the weather is settled, then of course you should apply sunblock and wear a sun hat.

Also please remember to take away your rubbish, as these sites are both scenic and rich in biodiversity. It’s best to leave family pets at home.

Optics are important for land-based whale watching and at a minimum you should bring a pair of binoculars with which you’re familiar, and better again if you have a wildlife spotting scope. A camera with zoom lens is an optional extra, in case animals venture close to the shore.

Watch leaders will have some educational material to hand out and some will have whale artefacts of interest to show participants on the day. 

There will be some IWDG resources and field guides for sale for anyone who’d like to support our charities work and learn more about our recording schemes.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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A whale species never before recorded in Irish waters has been confirmed by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG).

The marine wildlife specimen reported at Glengarriff in West Cork on 1 May — which live-stranded before it was found dead the following day — is that of a dwarf sperm whale, IWDG strandings officer Stephanie Levesque said.

Video footage received of the whale was shared with international experts “who confirmed that in their opinion it was a dwarf sperm whale due to its taller dorsal fin and smaller back”.

Levesque acknowledged concerns over the distress of the animal in the supplied video but said that “there is nothing [anyone] could have done as it was thrashing violently on slippery, seaweed covered rocks … It is extremely important to understand, if you see a stranded animal thrashing violently in this way, as difficult as it is to watch, you must keep your distance.”

The 2.25-metre female whale was with calf when it died, and a post-mortem by Drs Jim Donovan and Mercedes Gomez-Parada at the Cork Regional Vet Lab could not confirm the cause of death.

Examining the carcass of the dwarf sperm whale, a 2.5m pregnant female | Credit: Simon BerrowExamining the carcass of the dwarf sperm whale, a 2.25m pregnant female | Credit: Simon Berrow

“Prey remains, including squid beaks, were found in its stomach which was recovered together with the whole intestine for further analysis,” Levesque added. “The skeleton will be prepared by the IWDG and donated to the National Museum of Ireland (Natural History) to be preserved by the State.”

Meanwhile, genetic testing of a skin sample was performed by Dr Eileen Dillane, a geneticist at UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who identified a 99% match with the genes of dwarf sperm whales from the Western North Atlantic.

The last known record of a dwarf sperm whale in this part of the world was a sighting off Cornwall in the UK in October 2011.

“Whether we might expect more strandings of this ‘warm water’ species in Ireland and the UK following the impacts of climate change remains to be seen, but it is very important to continue to report stranded cetaceans to the IWDG so we can monitor these trends into the future,” Levesque said.

This was the second animal to be examined under the new Deep-Diving and Rare Cetacean Investigation Programme (DDRIP) launched by the IWDG recently.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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Photos taken off the Azores in recent days show that a white humpback whale mother and calf may be among the marine wildlife species’ annual migration to the North Atlantic.

And that means whale watchers in Ireland may have a chance to see this rare occurrence this summer, if we’re lucky.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) said on social media: “They were traveling northwest along the coastline of the island, but she was not certain whether they were heading south or north.

“In that case, we ask all whale watchers to keep their eyes (scopes, cameras) open for them.”

According to Whale Watch Azores, the adult albino humpback seems to be a well-travelled animal, matching a sighting 10 years ago off Svalbard in the far north of Norway – and may also be the same white whale that’s been spotted off Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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More than 100 basking sharks were spotted in the waters off Hook Head in Co Wexford last week as their season for 2022 starts “with a bang”, as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group reports.

A member of the public, Charlie O’Malley observed the massive congregation of the ocean’s second largest fish last Thursday (24 March) just six-to-eight miles southwest of Hook Head.

Not only were they great in number, but in size too — with O’Malley estimating many larger specimens of the marine wildlife giant of over 20ft in length.

“We have no reason to doubt the veracity of this report,” said IWDG sightings officer Pádraig Whooley. “Charlie hails from Achill Island and basking sharks are a species that run in his blood.”

Whooley said this “incredible kick-start” to the 2022 basking shark season follows a “good year” for sightings in 2021, with 161 validated by the IWDG — though the peak was between 2009 and 2011 when an average of more than 200 per annum were validated.

Sightings have also come in from Inis Mór in the Aran Islands and Baltimore in West Cork, and more are expected in the coming weeks — not least because these sharks have been in the news recently owing to their newly gained legal protection under the Wildlife Act, as reported on Afloat.ie.

Listen to to Tom MacSweeney's podcast with IWDG's Simon Berrow and also Charlie O’Malley here

Published in Marine Wildlife
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The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has confirmed the sighting of a common dolphin in the River Liffey at the weekend.

According to TheJournal.ie, the marine mammal was spotted swimming near the Poolbeg power plant on Saturday morning (12 March) before it headed out further into Dublin Bay.

IWDG sightings officer Padraig Whooley told TheJournal.ie: “This is only the second time IWDG has confirmed a sighting of a common dolphin in the Liffey system, so it is an unusual record.”

Previously a common dolphin wowed early morning city-goers when it swam up the Liffey as far as the Loopline Bridge in November 2018, as reported on Afloat.ie.

Published in Marine Wildlife

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) says it’s clarified its opinion on recent whale strandings in Donegal, explaining that the evidence does not suggest an “unusual mortality event” or UME.

It has been feared the strandings of two female sperm whales — at Maghery and on Malin Head respectively — were linked to Russian military exercises in the North Atlantic, as Afloat.ie reported last weekend.

But upon reviewing the data of marine wildlife strandings on the Irish coast between 15 and 21 February, including a female Cuvier’s beaked whale and a female long-finned pilot whale, the IWDG says that the incidents do not deviate from the expected annual stranding figures.

“Before any claims can be made calling this a UME or linking these current deaths to the military testing, additional evidence is needed,” IWDG strandings officer Stephanie Levesque said.

“We must wait to see if any further deep diving species wash up over the next few weeks as these numbers themselves currently are not out of the ordinary.”

However, Levesque added: “Two female sperm whales washed up at the same time is unexpected as most stranded sperm whales in Ireland are mature males.”

Meanwhile, it’s believed that “souvenir hunters” may be responsible for removing jaw bones from the two female whales washed ashore in Donegal.

Levesque told Donegal Live that such practice is common but it’s not known why.

“I don't know who does, but it is something that happens with sperm whales when they strand — the lower jaw is the first thing to go,” she said. “I don’t know if people think they are worth something.”

Donegal Live has more on the story HERE.

Published in Marine Wildlife
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It’s feared that at least one whale stranded in Donegal in recent days may have died as a result of Russian military exercises in the North Atlantic.

According to The Irish Sun, a marine wildlife expert investigating the stranding of a female whale at Maghery on Wednesday (16 February) said it appeared “deflated” and that its internal organs had “liquefied”.

Stephanie Levesque, a strandings officer with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), noted that it is not yet confirmed how recently the animal died but said: “We can’t rule anything out at this point.”

It’s understood that sperm whales, which can dive as much as 800 metres in search of food, can risk their lives by surfacing too fast when disturbed by sonar often employed by military vessels.

But disturbances caused by this week’s double whammy of Storm Dudley and Storm Eunice may have played a significant role.

A second sperm whale found at Malin Head on Thursday (17 February) was also deemed unusual.

Commenting on social media, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA) Ireland said: “What stood out was this animals teeth were very worn! Sperm [whales] are the largest toothed predator in the world.”

Before Russia agreed to move its planned military exercises out of Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan warned that the activity could have “devastating consequences” for marine mammals in the area.

Such concerns prompted the IWDG to back the call from the fishing industry for a moratorium on any and all military exercises within the Irish EEZ.

Published in Marine Wildlife

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) says it supports the call for a moratorium on military exercises within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Both the Irish South and West Fish Producers’ Organisation (IS&WFPO) and the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association (IFPEA) have appealed for the Government to introduce a 10-year halt on any future manoeuvres within the area, according to The Skipper.

It follows Russia’s decision, as a “gesture of goodwill”, to relocate live-fire drills that had been planned for this week in international waters but within the Irish EEZ, some 240km off the Cork coast.

The outcome was hailed as a victory for diplomacy on the part of Ireland’s fishing industry, with the EU fisheries commissioner paying tribute at the weekend.

There had been fears of confrontation between Irish trawlers and Russian naval vessels in the Atlantic as long-standing fishing grounds on the continental shelf adjoin the area previously earmarked for the military exercises.

“I think the Russian have set a precedent now…that we need to bring in a 10-year moratorium to stop all military exercises in the Irish EEZ,” IFPEA chief executive Brendan Byrne told Highland Radio.

“We can’t bring in an outright ban [due to international law] but we have have the right…to bring in the moratorium based on the eco-sensitivity of the area, based on the biological importance of it to [the] sea fishery which is mackerel, in this case, or nephrops and the entire environmental argument, notwithstanding the displacement of fishing.”

The IWDG said it supports fishers’ right “to work without feeling threatened by military exercises” and that “additionally such a moratorium would also greatly reduce the threat these exercises pose to whales and dolphins”.

It added: “While on this occasion the Russian navy notified the State of their intentions, UK and NATO vessels regularly carry out naval exercises within the Irish EEZ.

“They have also been known to use active sonar within the Irish EEZ and such events have been linked to the mass mortality of deep-diving whale species in Irish waters, most recently in 2018 with an unusual mortality event of Cuvier’s beaked whales in Ireland and Scotland.

“Mass strandings and inshore sightings of northern bottlenose whales and Sowerby’s beaked whales, which occurred in 2020, may also have been linked to naval activity.”

In light of this, the IWDG is “proposing four additional Marine Protected Areas for deep-diving cetaceans along the slopes of the Rockall Canyon, Porcupine Seabight and Whittard Canyon System”.

The marine wildlife charity also expressed its fears that the Northeast Atlantic “has become a global hotspot” for beaked whale strandings, which appear to be increasing in both magnitude and frequency”.

It adds: “Given the vulnerability of beaked whales to underwater noise, supported by significant advances in our understanding of the impacts of military sonar on these animals, it appears ever more likely that military sonars used in or adjacent to important beaked whale habitats are a significant factor in these mortalities.”

Meanwhile, concerns remain among environmentalists for marine wildlife in the vicinity of wherever Russia moves its planned naval and air force drills.

Speaking to Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1’s Today programme, Ken O’Sullivan, the documentary maker behind Ireland’s Deep Atlantic, said: “Exploding bombs in the ocean is never a good thing to do, for many reasons.”

RTÉ Radio 1 has the full interview HERE.

Published in Fishing
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Irish Fishing industry 

The Irish Commercial Fishing Industry employs around 11,000 people in fishing, processing and ancillary services such as sales and marketing. The industry is worth about €1.22 billion annually to the Irish economy. Irish fisheries products are exported all over the world as far as Africa, Japan and China.

FAQs

Over 16,000 people are employed directly or indirectly around the coast, working on over 2,000 registered fishing vessels, in over 160 seafood processing businesses and in 278 aquaculture production units, according to the State's sea fisheries development body Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM).

All activities that are concerned with growing, catching, processing or transporting fish are part of the commercial fishing industry, the development of which is overseen by BIM. Recreational fishing, as in angling at sea or inland, is the responsibility of Inland Fisheries Ireland.

The Irish fishing industry is valued at 1.22 billion euro in gross domestic product (GDP), according to 2019 figures issued by BIM. Only 179 of Ireland's 2,000 vessels are over 18 metres in length. Where does Irish commercially caught fish come from? Irish fish and shellfish is caught or cultivated within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but Irish fishing grounds are part of the common EU "blue" pond. Commercial fishing is regulated under the terms of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), initiated in 1983 and with ten-yearly reviews.

The total value of seafood landed into Irish ports was 424 million euro in 2019, according to BIM. High value landings identified in 2019 were haddock, hake, monkfish and megrim. Irish vessels also land into foreign ports, while non-Irish vessels land into Irish ports, principally Castletownbere, Co Cork, and Killybegs, Co Donegal.

There are a number of different methods for catching fish, with technological advances meaning skippers have detailed real time information at their disposal. Fisheries are classified as inshore, midwater, pelagic or deep water. Inshore targets species close to shore and in depths of up to 200 metres, and may include trawling and gillnetting and long-lining. Trawling is regarded as "active", while "passive" or less environmentally harmful fishing methods include use of gill nets, long lines, traps and pots. Pelagic fisheries focus on species which swim close to the surface and up to depths of 200 metres, including migratory mackerel, and tuna, and methods for catching include pair trawling, purse seining, trolling and longlining. Midwater fisheries target species at depths of around 200 metres, using trawling, longlining and jigging. Deepwater fisheries mainly use trawling for species which are found at depths of over 600 metres.

There are several segments for different catching methods in the registered Irish fleet – the largest segment being polyvalent or multi-purpose vessels using several types of gear which may be active and passive. The polyvalent segment ranges from small inshore vessels engaged in netting and potting to medium and larger vessels targeting whitefish, pelagic (herring, mackerel, horse mackerel and blue whiting) species and bivalve molluscs. The refrigerated seawater (RSW) pelagic segment is engaged mainly in fishing for herring, mackerel, horse mackerel and blue whiting only. The beam trawling segment focuses on flatfish such as sole and plaice. The aquaculture segment is exclusively for managing, developing and servicing fish farming areas and can collect spat from wild mussel stocks.

The top 20 species landed by value in 2019 were mackerel (78 million euro); Dublin Bay prawn (59 million euro); horse mackerel (17 million euro); monkfish (17 million euro); brown crab (16 million euro); hake (11 million euro); blue whiting (10 million euro); megrim (10 million euro); haddock (9 million euro); tuna (7 million euro); scallop (6 million euro); whelk (5 million euro); whiting (4 million euro); sprat (3 million euro); herring (3 million euro); lobster (2 million euro); turbot (2 million euro); cod (2 million euro); boarfish (2 million euro).

Ireland has approximately 220 million acres of marine territory, rich in marine biodiversity. A marine biodiversity scheme under Ireland's operational programme, which is co-funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and the Government, aims to reduce the impact of fisheries and aquaculture on the marine environment, including avoidance and reduction of unwanted catch.

EU fisheries ministers hold an annual pre-Christmas council in Brussels to decide on total allowable catches and quotas for the following year. This is based on advice from scientific bodies such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. In Ireland's case, the State's Marine Institute publishes an annual "stock book" which provides the most up to date stock status and scientific advice on over 60 fish stocks exploited by the Irish fleet. Total allowable catches are supplemented by various technical measures to control effort, such as the size of net mesh for various species.

The west Cork harbour of Castletownbere is Ireland's biggest whitefish port. Killybegs, Co Donegal is the most important port for pelagic (herring, mackerel, blue whiting) landings. Fish are also landed into Dingle, Co Kerry, Rossaveal, Co Galway, Howth, Co Dublin and Dunmore East, Co Waterford, Union Hall, Co Cork, Greencastle, Co Donegal, and Clogherhead, Co Louth. The busiest Northern Irish ports are Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel, Co Down.

Yes, EU quotas are allocated to other fleets within the Irish EEZ, and Ireland has long been a transhipment point for fish caught by the Spanish whitefish fleet in particular. Dingle, Co Kerry has seen an increase in foreign landings, as has Castletownbere. The west Cork port recorded foreign landings of 36 million euro or 48 per cent in 2019, and has long been nicknamed the "peseta" port, due to the presence of Spanish-owned transhipment plant, Eiranova, on Dinish island.

Most fish and shellfish caught or cultivated in Irish waters is for the export market, and this was hit hard from the early stages of this year's Covid-19 pandemic. The EU, Asia and Britain are the main export markets, while the middle Eastern market is also developing and the African market has seen a fall in value and volume, according to figures for 2019 issued by BIM.

Fish was once a penitential food, eaten for religious reasons every Friday. BIM has worked hard over several decades to develop its appeal. Ireland is not like Spain – our land is too good to transform us into a nation of fish eaters, but the obvious health benefits are seeing a growth in demand. Seafood retail sales rose by one per cent in 2019 to 300 million euro. Salmon and cod remain the most popular species, while BIM reports an increase in sales of haddock, trout and the pangasius or freshwater catfish which is cultivated primarily in Vietnam and Cambodia and imported by supermarkets here.

The EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), initiated in 1983, pooled marine resources – with Ireland having some of the richest grounds and one of the largest sea areas at the time, but only receiving four per cent of allocated catch by a quota system. A system known as the "Hague Preferences" did recognise the need to safeguard the particular needs of regions where local populations are especially dependent on fisheries and related activities. The State's Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, based in Clonakilty, Co Cork, works with the Naval Service on administering the EU CFP. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and Department of Transport regulate licensing and training requirements, while the Marine Survey Office is responsible for the implementation of all national and international legislation in relation to safety of shipping and the prevention of pollution.

Yes, a range of certificates of competency are required for skippers and crew. Training is the remit of BIM, which runs two national fisheries colleges at Greencastle, Co Donegal and Castletownbere, Co Cork. There have been calls for the colleges to be incorporated into the third-level structure of education, with qualifications recognised as such.

Safety is always an issue, in spite of technological improvements, as fishing is a hazardous occupation and climate change is having its impact on the severity of storms at sea. Fishing skippers and crews are required to hold a number of certificates of competency, including safety and navigation, and wearing of personal flotation devices is a legal requirement. Accidents come under the remit of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, and the Health and Safety Authority. The MCIB does not find fault or blame, but will make recommendations to the Minister for Transport to avoid a recurrence of incidents.

Fish are part of a marine ecosystem and an integral part of the marine food web. Changing climate is having a negative impact on the health of the oceans, and there have been more frequent reports of warmer water species being caught further and further north in Irish waters.

Brexit, Covid 19, EU policies and safety – Britain is a key market for Irish seafood, and 38 per cent of the Irish catch is taken from the waters around its coast. Ireland's top two species – mackerel and prawns - are 60 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively, dependent on British waters. Also, there are serious fears within the Irish industry about the impact of EU vessels, should they be expelled from British waters, opting to focus even more efforts on Ireland's rich marine resource. Covid-19 has forced closure of international seafood markets, with high value fish sold to restaurants taking a large hit. A temporary tie-up support scheme for whitefish vessels introduced for the summer of 2020 was condemned by industry organisations as "designed to fail".

Sources: Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Marine Institute, Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Department of Transport © Afloat 2020

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