Fifty-six dolphins and whales have washed up on beaches in Ireland so far this year making 2017 the worst on record for such strandings.
The number of deaths is a fivefold increase on the same period in 2010. They have prompted an unprecedented meeting this week between experts from state marine and wildlife agencies and fishing and trawler organisations to discover what is killing so many of the species.
Pollution, trawler nets, disease, natural causes and inclement weather are all possible causes for the demise of the marine mammals whose beached bodies are being discovered almost every other day on some part of the coastline.
Former taoiseach Charlie Haughey famously made Ireland the first whale and dolphin sanctuary in Europe in 1991 during his last term in office but this decade has seen more than 1,000 of the creatures stranding.
While some die of natural causes like hunger or illness, others bodies bear the tell-tale marks of having been caught in a net but there are no conclusive causes of death as the animals currently don’t undergo an autopsy in Ireland.
Mick O’Connell, strandings officer for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, said 2017 has seen the steepest rise in strandings of whales, porpoises and dolphins. He said: “In a series of years of unusually high strandings, 2017 so far is now the worst ever on record in Ireland with 56 cetacean strandings recorded already this year of which 29 are common dolphins.”
The death toll is heaviest every January and February and it is rising ever year.
“Every January and February, I see a non-stop stream of dead dolphins coming in all over the country. It’s something we didn’t get to the same level at all before 2011,” he said.
The numbers have snowballed from around 30 strandings a year at the start of the century to figures of around 200 annually in recent years. If the dolphins or whales are caught up in the giant trawler nets they suffer a terrible death of drowning or being crushed while being towed by the mammoth ships underwater.
It is thought the numbers washing up onshore are only a tiny fraction of the mammals caught in nets which are thrown overboard and disappear without a trace at sea.
“One study suggests as little as 8% of dolphins dying at sea are actually recorded,” said Mr O’Connell.
Last Wednesday, a common dolphin’s body was found washed ashore in Fenit, Co Kerry. The same day, a common dolphin with blood marks on its beak was discovered lying on seaweed in Ballyconneely Beach in Connemara; while on Monday, the emaciated body of a sperm whale was discovered on Nethertown Beach, Co Wexford.