Doing their bit to make the world a better — and cleaner — place

Musician Sharon Shannon is not afraid to get her hands dirty in a bid to keep Galway's Claddagh beach a bit cleaner, writes  Lorna Siggins
Doing their bit to make the world a better — and cleaner — place

Musician Sharon Shannon displays baby wipes found on Claddagh beach, Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

SHARON Shannon may have just released a new album and delighted the nation last month with her electric guitar skills on RTÉ’s Late Late Show.

However, if you ever spotted her lookalike down on Galway’s Claddagh beach with gloves and a rubbish collection bag, that would have been the award-winning musician.

Not only was she busy composing, writing and recording The Reckoning during lockdown, she was also in constant contact with the Claddagh Beach Clean Up Volunteer Group.

“It really wasn’t my idea to start it,” Shannon says with typical modesty, emphasising that it is one of many such groups.

Musician Sharon Shannon displays baby wipes found on the beach near the cladagh, Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

Musician Sharon Shannon displays baby wipes found on the beach near the cladagh, Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

The Salthill aquarium, Galway Atlantaquaria, for instance, was one of the recent award winners with Clean Coasts, the coastwide initiative run by An Taisce.

“I’d be out walking the dogs and I would see this photographer friend of mine, Jason Delaney, picking up rubbish on his own,” Shannon explains.

“Jason is not only an amazing wildlife photographer, but he knows everything about the birdlife and animal life on the shoreline,” she says.

“He explained to me that, whereas it may seem like only a drop in the ocean, every piece of plastic he would collect might just save one bird... that was, and is, his motivation. So I started doing it myself and discovered that Claddagh beach is a special area of conservation, but it is not a designated bathing area and doesn’t get cleaned regularly by Galway City Council,” she says.

Shannon and Delaney were quickly joined by other volunteers, including Dermot Connolly, Ryan Crowell, Billy Smyth and Dr Ingrid Cunningham.

“We all tend to do it on our own now, due to the Covid-19 restrictions but, before the pandemic, we had volunteers from Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and all sorts of nationalities living in Galway,” she says.

“You’d find every type of rubbish, either washed up or thrown there because there are no litter bins near at hand — we were told by one councillor that putting in an extra bin would only encourage litter!” Shannon says.

It was the increase in wet wipes — often knotted into unrecognisable large clumps like "dreadlocks", as Shannon puts it — and face masks that really upset the volunteers when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Research by NUIG scientist Dr Liam Morrison and colleagues at the Ryan Institute has shown that 50% of wet wipe products labelled as “flushable” are comprised of microfibres — as in plastic — with potentially devastating effects on marine life and seabirds, which may try to ingest the particles.

Dr Morrison found that there are no regulations, only industry guidelines on labelling. He also learned at a recent conference that one of the largest cohorts of wet wipe users is not young parents or those using cosmetics, but young men.

“We were told young men increased their use substantially after actor and director Will Smith advocated them in a BBC interview,” Dr Morrison has said.

Tests recently carried out at his laboratory on disposable masks found that the three layers of these white and blue masks are made from polypropylene. Like wet wipes, they will fragment and breakdown into microplastic fibres, with fatal consequences for marine life.

Shannon says she has to take a break regularly from picking litter as she finds it overwhelming. She believes political intervention is necessary.

Her group has been lobbying Galway City Council and Irish Water for action after the volunteers identified one source of wet wipes and other pollutants – a storm water overflow discharge pipe at the Long Walk near Spanish Arch.

These storm water overflows are licensed for use when a sewage treatment plant, such as Galway’s Mutton Island, is over capacity after heavy rain.

Irish Water has confirmed that the Long Walk overflow is an issue that it is working to resolve.

Her group has also worked with An Taisce in Galway, which has just compiled a dossier on the high level of pollution in inner Galway Bay from the Corrib estuary out.

Kelp expert and diver Dr Kathryn Schoenrock

Kelp expert and diver Dr Kathryn Schoenrock

Like Shannon, Dr Kathryn Schoenrock is passionate about marine life, not only on the Atlantic coastline where she is based, but in many parts of the world where she has worked.

The NUIG marine ecologist is a leading specialist in the ecology of Irish kelp forests and spends much of her time underwater.

She was conferred with an Early Career Researcher award by the Irish Research Council (IRC) in the same week that she gave birth to her first child in December.

“I’m from California, and there is a bunch of kelp forests along this part of the US west coast,” she says.

“My initial study at Santa Cruz was in marine mammals, but I sort of fell in love with kelp when I realised the rich habitats are like terrestrial forests underwater,” she explains.

“So I switched from dolphins to seaweed,” she says and she has worked in Kenya, Antarctica, Greenland and other parts of the world.

Her “ground-breaking work... has made her the authoritative voice on Irish kelp forest ecology, and the productivity and biodiversity of these systems in nearshore waters,” the IRC says.

Schoenrock reported the first discovery of golden kelp in Irish waters last year. The small population was discovered in Scots Port cove on the north west facing Belmullet coastline in Co Mayo.

Scots Port is located 1,040km from the nearest golden kelp population in Britain and 1,630km away from the nearest population in France.

The dominant kelp species found in Irish waters is Cuvie ( Laminaria hyperborea). Five main types of kelp provide important habitats for marine life, she says.

Not only that, but they also act as a repository of “blue carbon”, which may buffer climate change impacts to marine habitats.

She contributes data from Irish coastlines to national, European and international kelp forest monitoring networks.

She has also encouraged scientific diving at NUIG, teaching the first Irish scientific (not technical) diving course there in spring-summer 2020 within Covid-19 guidelines.

“I like the idea of creating a community of scientific divers and it is an immense skill to have,” she says.

Prof Justin Holmes, UCC

Prof Justin Holmes, UCC

If we are soon able to measure air quality with our phone or our watch, it could be due to the work of a team led by University College, Cork (UCC) scientist Dr Justin Holmes.

Partners from five European countries are working with his team on a €3.2m project to create low-cost electrical sensors for detecting harmful particles in the atmosphere.

Air pollution has been identified as a leading cause of more than 400,000 premature deaths across the EU each year.

“I am a material scientist, but we partnered with colleagues in chemistry who have expertise in atmospherics and it is a really interesting collaboration,” Holmes says.

“Normally, monitoring 'radicals' in the atmosphere, like hydroxyl and nitrate, requires very expensive pieces of equipment,” he says.

His colleague, Prof John Wenger of the UCC Centre of Research on Atmospheric Chemistry, says the new technology has the potential to “revolutionise the whole field of environmental monitoring and atmospheric science”.

It could even be extended into other areas, such as monitoring chemistry in the human body, Wenger has suggested. 

“No one has previously detected atmospheric radicals using electrical sensors,” Holmes says, noting his team has “just started out” on its four-year project funded under the EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

“If successful, the idea that we can develop something the size of a chip in a mobile phone ties into the whole citizen science idea of monitoring pollution,” he says.

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