A leading marine conservationist has criticised the reaction from politicians and fishermen to a proposed Russian naval exercise off the coast of West Cork.
Cork-based sightings officer for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) Pádraig Whooley, said that plans by West Cork fishermen to “disrupt” the exercise, and warnings from politicians about the environmental dangers, were disingenuous.
“The fact is there are several naval exercises every year, and we are never informed about them,” said Mr Whooley.
“Nato and the Royal Navy don’t tell us in advance, and you don’t hear these concerns being raised about their activities.”
Russia has announced plans to hold naval exercises in the first week of February, including at a location about 240km off the south-west coast within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.
The move is seen by many Western governments as a show of strength by Russia as tensions rise over the threat of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
Russian ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov said the military exercises “are not in any way a threat to Ireland or anybody else”.
Patrick Murphy, chief executive officer of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, said that fishermen wanted to “protect biodiversity and marine life” in the area.
Cork South West Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O’Sullivan said: “Impending Russian missile tests inside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone risks livelihoods and represents an ecological disaster for numerous species of whale, dolphins, and fish.”
Mr Whooley said: “There are a lot of assumptions being made about what the Russian navy are going to do, but the truth is we just don’t know.
If this is just a conventional exercise with the usual cat-and-mouse scenario and a few ships, it will have no impact on the marine life in the area whatsoever, unless a whale takes a direct hit, and that’s not going to happen.
However, he said any deployment of sonar would be a different matter.
“A whale doesn’t know or care where the sonar is coming from, it will do just as much damage if it’s Russian or Nato,” he said.
“When you think of sonar, you think of submarines in the old Second World War movies, but sound has now gone from defensive to offensive.
“These things can destroy an incoming torpedo, so just imagine what they can do to a whale.
Whales have evolved over thousands of years to live in a quiet, acoustic world. They are extremely vulnerable to this military sonar technology, and the bottom line is we don’t want to see dead whales, no matter who is responsible.
Mr Whooley said the area where the proposed exercise is due to take place was important to the deep-diving beaked whale species that are rarely seen closer to shore, and these animals are particularly vulnerable to military sonar.
These deep-diving whales can be severely distressed by the deployment of sonar. They panic and head for the surface, and they get the bends just like people do if they surface too quickly, and that’s what kills them.
Numerous mass strandings of beaked whales and dolphin species, accounting for hundreds of deaths, have been reported in Ireland, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands in recent years.
Military sonar is believed to be responsible for many of the deaths.
Mr Whooley said: “Obviously we don’t want to see any military exercises taking place, the IWDG cares about diversity and supporting our marine environment, that’s our priority.”