World Ocean Day is a reminder of the wonders of the seas and the threats facing them

Greater numbers of people are engaging with the sea but this new-found wonder comes at a time of crisis for the world’s oceans and Irish seas, writes Joyce Fegan
World Ocean Day is a reminder of the wonders of the seas and the threats facing them

Dusty the Dolphin swimming with Kate Hamsikova off the coast of Co. Clare. There are more common dolphins coming to shore. This shows there is no food for them in the open ocean. Photo: George Karbus

In today's Spotlight:

  • Wild Ocean Photographer George Karbus, has literally seen the decline in fish numbers in his 15 years of capturing images of life in Ireland's Atlantic waters. He describes the effect over-fishing has on some of the sea's precious creatures.
  • Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “I scuba dive, I free dive, I swim, I snorkel. Anything that can get me down there." Despite over-fishing and marine plastics, Ken still loves to film Ireland's underwater wildlife and believes protected areas that would go a long way to reversing the plummeting fish stocks.
  • 60-year-old fisherman, Ashley Hayden, used to feel angry about the situation in our seas, but today he focuses his energy and knowledge on solutions. He thinks “community management” of our seas will “benefit our society to a much greater degree than it does today”.

Thanks to the surge in open water swimming since the pandemic began, this World Ocean Day may have more significance to Irish people than ever before.

An island nation, with access to both seas and ocean, we’ve always had a connection to the water, for either livelihood or leisure, but never more so than now.

“There is no question about it that there will be the largest number ever of open water swimmers on beaches, rivers and lakes this year, even if it rains for the summer,” John Leech from Irish Water Safety told the Irish Examiner.

Large sports outlet Decathlon, which opened doors in Ireland a year ago, said “watersports and camping” were “by far the most popular items” in their Irish store in May.

In May alone they sold nearly 1,000 buoyancy aids to customers, more than 500 kayaks, over 550 stand-up paddleboards, as well as more than 500 wetsuits.

“We are contacted regularly by the watersports brand in France asking how we are selling so many watersports-based articles,” a spokesman for Decathlon told the Irish Examiner.

Dee Newell at the Cove, Greystones for #swimrise. She runs online safety classes for new swimmers. Photo: Niall Meehan
Dee Newell at the Cove, Greystones for #swimrise. She runs online safety classes for new swimmers. Photo: Niall Meehan

And Dee Newell, a well-known open water swimmer, who completed her first ice kilometre in Antarctica in 2020, found herself running online safety classes for new swimmers during the pandemic such was the surge in swimming here.

“Last November the most common thing said by regular year-round swimmers was: ‘I can’t wait for the numbers to drop down’.

And that really didn’t happen, if anything it was the opposite. That was clear even from the parking situation at swim spots.

“As a result of noticing this surge, I did some online safety classes. The intention was to do one and I expected 10 to 15 people but I ended up running a number of courses with approximately 25 tuned in each evening. I wasn’t the only one doing these courses online either and all were repeated due to popularity,” Dee told the Irish Examiner.

And in response to how people felt nature, and the sea in particular, gave them an outlet during the various lockdowns, a craft project called Crafting Change Ireland saw craftivism installations popping up at beaches all over the country this year reminding people that we need to take care of nature in return.

However, the sea, unfortunately, isn’t just a positive story, with climate change. Everything from fishing stocks to sea levels and from basking sharks to our seabirds are being affected.

Cold water coral, 2000 metres deep about 70km off the west coast of Ireland. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
Cold water coral, 2000 metres deep about 70km off the west coast of Ireland. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

And it’s not just down at the Great Barrier Reef, but right here along our coastlines.

Major, pressing and current issues for us include vast overfishing, our breeding seabirds nearing extinction and just a minute percentage of marine areas having adequate protection.

There has been a 97% collapse in our cod stock since the 1970s, a 95% collapse in plaice, and a 93% collapse in sole.

So when you buy cod, sole or plaice in your supermarket nowadays it no longer comes from the closest fishing village, and instead likely originates from north in the Atlantic Ocean. It is not the same fish your parents or grandparents ate on a Friday.

“Sharks are top of the food chain, and they’re decimated, 66% of sharks are near threatened in the Irish sea”, said Pádraic Fogarty from the Irish Wildlife Trust, who also wrote the best-selling book Whittled Away, which tracks Ireland’s vanishing nature.

Talk to the non-scientists, the scuba-divers and wild ocean photographers, and they will give you first-hand testimony behind these statistics.

Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “I’ve swam with sharks lots of times, around 30 types, from basking to blue, but they’re not interested in us. Sharks are actually quite shy." Photo: George Karbus
Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “I’ve swam with sharks lots of times, around 30 types, from basking to blue, but they’re not interested in us. Sharks are actually quite shy." Photo: George Karbus

“There seems to be less fish by the coast than there used to be.

“Some people say there are more common dolphins coming to shore. This shows there is no food for them in the open ocean. They never did it before. That’s what I hear from all fishermen in Ireland,” said George Karbus, an award-winning wild ocean photographer based in Co. Clare.

And Ken O’Sullivan, who has been filming Ireland’s underwater life for 15 years now, managed to get access to 3,000m deep. Down there he found courier bags and plastic bottles in among the plankton, the bedrock of the food chain.

However, it is overfishing that is one of our biggest problems, and that’s now threatening even our seabirds with extinction.

“Of Ireland’s 24 breeding seabirds, 19 are amber-listed (medium conservation concern), four are red-listed (high conservation concern), this includes the puffin. We’ve only one bird on the green list,” said Fintan Kelly, from BirdWatch Ireland , our nature conservation NGO.

Why would seabirds matter? Or what indication does their health give to the wider health of the climate?

Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “Diving in Irish waters is the most beautiful connection to the natural world on earth" Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “Diving in Irish waters is the most beautiful connection to the natural world on earth" Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

The status of their health is a big indicator of the health of our seas and oceans.

“Globally seabirds are one of the most threatened birds and it’s because of wider climate change. Climate change is driving a redistribution of the food chain and as the fish population moves north, it affects them. Overfishing depletes their food stock. Overfishing remains the biggest impact,” said Fintan.

Aren’t there legally-binding fishing quotas in place at an EU level, to keep things in check?

In 2020, despite the legal commitment to end over-fishing by 2020, 46% (51 of 110) of the agreed fishing limits negotiated in Brussels exceeded the best available scientific advice and therefore facilitated overfishing.

And Brexit has not helped things at all. “The UK has rejected the environmental obligations of the Common Fisheries Policy in exchange for [an] aspiration [agreement] and is no longer bound by the EU’s obligation to end overfishing as of 2020.

“Despite us being almost halfway through 2021 the EU and UK have not been able to come to an agreement on fishing quotas. One major impediment to an agreement are the UK’s proposals for flexibility that could result in even more overfishing,” said Fintan.

However, the UK isn’t our only problem when it comes to the health of our seas. We are. Just recently, the EU revoked the control plan that looked after the policing of fishing in Irish waters.

“Fifteen years of European Commission audits have highlighted severe and significant weaknesses in the Irish control systems which has resulted in the unprecedented step of the commission revoking Ireland’s ‘control plan’ which allowed the Irish fishing industry to weigh their catch in processing factories, rather than at port,” said Fintan.

Tourists flock to the Skellig Rocks, off the coast of Portmagee, one of Ireland's marine protected areas. Photo: Stephen Power/Alamy Live News
Tourists flock to the Skellig Rocks, off the coast of Portmagee, one of Ireland's marine protected areas. Photo: Stephen Power/Alamy Live News

However, the revision of the EU’s control regulation presents a “golden opportunity” to tackle many of the deficiencies that have led to Ireland’s current crisis. The other major issue affecting the health of our surrounding seas and ocean is the lack of marine protection. 

Only 2% of Irish waters are protected. A lot of sites protected are coastal areas such as sand dunes, and in practice a lot of the sites are ‘paper parks’, meaning it’s just ‘lip service’ and that the protection in place is not enough.

We have already passed the 2020 deadline to have at least 10% of our marine area ‘highly protected’.

“We’ve a long way to go to have 30% protection by 2030,” said Fintan.

Taking a whistle-stop tour around the coast, some iconic locations for marine protected areas include Skellig Michael, Little Skellig, Ireland’s Eye, the Saltee Islands in Co Wexford, the Cliffs of Moher and the sand dunes at Doonbeg, in Co Clare.

Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “The Irish sea is a magical place." Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “The Irish sea is a magical place." Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

What can ordinary people actually do about some of these issues?

Fintan suggests things as simple as following BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust or the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group on social media can help, by engaging with their posts and consuming information or petitions to the government that they are sharing.

Or becoming a member of one such group helps too.

However, it is becoming better informed that will have the greatest impact and then electing politicians that have good policies when it comes to the environment.

“That will have such broad implications,” said Fintan.

Wild Ocean Photographer George Karbus: 'The most impressive animals we can see here are basking sharks, they’re the second largest fish on planet'

George Karbus is a wild ocean photographer who has been capturing the waves of Irish Atlantic waters and under its surface for 15 years. In that short time, he has literally seen with his own eyes how the number of fish has declined.

“I’ve been photographing the Irish sea for 15 years. I call it wild ocean photography, so big waves and underwater. My favourite subjects are marine mammals — sharks, whales, seals, dolphins,” says George.

“The myth of the dangerous shark is in people’s minds because of a stupid American movie. The myth that a shark is dangerous is not true at all, they’re actually very shy. We have to drum the water when they’re nearby, photographing sharks is quite difficult,” he says.

George says that all the shark accidents are mistakes, or a “lack of luck”. If a shark is in murky water, he might mistake a diver for a seal and do a test bite. It’s that quick bite that could be fatal.

While he photographs mammals as far north as Norway and the Arctic Circle, he finds Irish waters most inspiring.

A basking shark, the world's second largest fish, feeding off the County Cork coast near Courtmacsherry. Photo: George Karbus
A basking shark, the world's second largest fish, feeding off the County Cork coast near Courtmacsherry. Photo: George Karbus

“The most impressive animals we can see here are basking sharks, they’re the second largest fish on the planet. They arrive in Irish waters in spring, and so many arrived to the Co Clare coast in lockdown, there were hundreds and hundreds of them.

“We also have some variety of whales, the most common is the minke whale, that’s 7m to 8m long, and then we have humpbacks and fin whales — the second largest animal to have ever lived on the planet,” says George.

When photographing Irish waters, George will either just swim from the shore with a snorkel and fin or else he will go further out to sea in a boat.
However, it’s not 2m barrelling waves of emerald-coloured ocean water or whales that impress George about Irish waters.

“We don’t have coral reefs, but I free dive in kelp (seaweed), and it’s just so beautiful when the sun shines through it when it’s blooming in spring. And lots of fish live in seaweed, we have beautiful jellyfish — that’s the most beautiful part,” he says.

Sunrise at Skellig Rock, the second largest Gannet colony in Europe. Photo: George Karbus
Sunrise at Skellig Rock, the second largest Gannet colony in Europe. Photo: George Karbus

With the beauty of our sea and ocean in mind, what changes has he witnessed in the 15 years he has been photographing our waters?

“There seems to be less fish by the coast than there used to be.

“Some people say there are more common dolphins coming to shore. This shows there is no food for them in the open ocean. They never did it before – that’s what I hear from all fishermen in Ireland,” says George.

With overfishing we are also “stealing whales’ food”. “We don’t hunt them”, but stealing their food has a knock-on effect.

Double Breach: double breach at Tonga. With overfishing we are also “stealing whales’ food”. Photo: George Karbus
Double Breach: double breach at Tonga. With overfishing we are also “stealing whales’ food”. Photo: George Karbus

A knock-on effect that George has seen further north of Ireland, that proves his point about whale’s food being stolen, is the presence of ‘super hungry’ mammals in Norway.

“I go to Norway every year and the whales are super hungry when they come from the north Atlantic . That’s how I see it and feel it,” he says.

One other activity he sees, which points to a lack of food for our mammals, happens with dolphins.

“Dolphins, in normal life, spend so much time playing and socialising, they’re super playful. But overfishing our seas means they spend more time feeding and less time playing.

“They’re forced to constantly search for food, they’ve less time to spend with family,” says George.

George is @georgekarbus on Instagram

Underwater Filmmaker Ken O’Sullivan: “Diving in Irish waters is the most beautiful connection to the natural world on earth”

Ken O’Sullivan’s relationship with the sea goes back at least 250 years, when his family lived on Fenit Island off the coast of Kerry, and the ocean sustained them.

While they had an incredible understanding of and emotional connection to the sea, they knew nothing of what was below the surface.

For the past 15 years Ken has taken his camera underwater to capture never-before-seen footage of the Irish seas, including our deep water reefs 3,000m below the surface.

His documentaries, such as Ireland’s Deep Atlantic, have not only captured life below sea level, but the imagination of the nation.

While you might think that diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or snorkelling in the tropical waters of the Maldives might show you the most beautiful underwater life on Earth, Ireland is actually as good as it can get.

“I scuba dive, I free dive, I swim, I snorkel. Anything that can get me down there.

A Compass Freagh. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
A Compass Freagh. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

“And if you go on a nice day, it can be the most beautiful connection to the natural world on Earth. When conditions are right it’s pink-encrusting algae just a few metres deep, rocky reefs with kelp forests, anemones — little jelly like creatures with luminous tentacles, sea slugs who are equally colourful, beautifully coloured jellyfish and rainbow-coloured wrasse. The Irish sea is a magical place,” says Ken.

And of course it’s not just luminous-coloured fish that live in our seas, but whales and dolphins and sharks too.

“We have 25 species of whales and dolphins regularly seen in Irish waters.

“I’ve swam with sharks lots of times, around 30 types, from basking to blue. I can find no credible history of any attacks in Irish or English seas. They really have no interest in us. They’re not teddy bears, but they’re not interested in us. Sharks are actually quite shy,” says Ken.

He also swam and filmed whales, including humpbacks.

A small Hydro Medusa. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
A small Hydro Medusa. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

“I’ve swam with lots of different species, blue whales, minke whales and humpback whales. Humpbacks are very charismatic. I’ve filmed them feeding, but they go past in a flash, you’ve got five seconds to get the shot,” says the documentary maker.

While he describes his work as a great privilege and shares it beyond the silver screen with scientists and researchers, as well as the Department of Education for the Junior Cycle curriculum, there is no doubt that in his lifetime he has seen major changes in the seas around Ireland.

The cause of the changes to Irish seas and the species that call in home? Over-fishing and marine plastics.

“Overfishing is the biggest single issue. There is too much fishing. There are lots of fish still but there are so many species that have been overfished; cod, herring and mackerel. Herring was a huge historical stock and cod has been decimated. For me that is really depressing,” says Ken.

A fish that he sees being heaving fished nowadays in Irish waters is sprat or the Russian sardine.

A Dahlia Anemone. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
A Dahlia Anemone. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

Two long trawlers will string a net across their sterns and go back and forth across a body of water all day long. The problem with fishing sprat is that they are at the bottom of the marine food chain, and herring eat them. By overfishing sprat, you are literally removing the bottom of the food chain from the sea, next to plankton.

Sprat is caught here and then mulched and turned into lawn fertiliser and cat food. “It’s calamitous abuse,” says Ken.

And at what economic benefit?

“It sells at €140 a tonne, mackerel sells for €1,000 a tonne, and household rubbish sells at €150 a tonne,” answers the filmmaker.

While he is depressed by the loss of fish stocks in Irish waters, he is not without hope. “If we had protected areas that would go a long way. The great thing about nature is if you leave it alone, it recovers. It might take a while but it will recover and then fish start to thrive and they spill over into other areas. It’s a win-win for everybody,” says Ken.

Baskers. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan
Baskers. Photo: Ken O'Sullivan

Another issue that can happen off Irish waters is the illegal fishing of sharks for shark fin soup for the “nouveau riche” in China.

Criminals will hunt sharks, remove their fins and then throw the animals back into the water alive, only for them to drown as they go longer swim without their fin.

Compared to six humans killed by sharks every year, around 700 million to 100 million sharks are killed by humans per annum.

In 2018, the Irish Naval Service detained a vessel with one tonne of shark fins on board, 150 nautical miles off Mizen Head, Co Cork. One tonne of shark fins would have involved the death of 5,000 sharks.

Ken O'Sullivan
Ken O'Sullivan

Marine plastics is another issue that Ken has seen first hand, even at 3,000m. He describes the issue of plastics in our waters as “chronic”.

“About 2,000m to 3000m deep, in cold water reefs about 70km out off the western coast, and what did we find? A Coke bottle, a DHL bag, loads of plastic bottles and fishing nets tied up neatly and dumped overboard,” says Ken.

He says the Coke bottle and DHL bag was the waste of the general public. They made this discovery using an underwater RV, remote vehicle — an unmanned scuba diver. However, it’s not just that the plastic is in our waters, it’s where Ken found it that is of major concern to humans too.

“We found them in among the plankton,” says Ken. Plankton play a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of the ocean.

“So those plastics are getting into the food chain”, he says.

Ken is @osullivan.ken on Instagram

‘The sea was like a garden of Eden. It’s like a desert now,’ says fisherman Ashley

Ashley Hayden is 60 years of age, and started fishing off the east coast, in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, in a sea “teeming with life” when he was just 11 years old.

The changes he has witnessed in that short 50-year period are utterly stark. “It was like a garden of Eden. It’s like a desert now,” says Ashley.

“The first day I ever went fishing was in September 1971, I was dying to get out. I helped my dad launch a long line, it had 200 hooks on it with lugworm we dug in Booterstown. Each hook was 15 ft apart, so a bit short of a kilometre of line. I would have rowed the boat out and he would have shot the line.

“You get two tides a day and fish feed best when the tide slows down and it’s turning. I remember being just 200m off St David’s [a secondary school in
Greystones], at this sandy patch when we shot the line for plaice. My dad rowed the boat and let me haul it in, I was pulling in the line and I could feel the fish before I saw them, they were olive green with orange spots. The plaice was so vivid I was just gob-smacked. About 25% of the hooks had fish on them, so 40 to 50 fish, mainly plaice,” says Ashley.

Further out in the Irish Sea is the Moulditch Bank, which is one mile off Greystones. “It was a rocky reef with lots of kelp forest that would attract and maintain cod more or less throughout the year, it was a geological feature, it was a habitat.”

Another feature of the Irish Sea, from Bray Head down to Wicklow Head, was these “permanent mussel banks”. “They were home to shellfish, razorfish, whelks, brittle star — it was like a fish larder,” says Ashley.

Ashley Hayden puts the depleted fish numbers down to poor management of the stocks in Irish waters.
Ashley Hayden puts the depleted fish numbers down to poor management of the stocks in Irish waters.

“And along with the way these tides work, there was a serious amount of food — this attracted the fish in from the greater Irish Sea, it was just prolific,” he adds.

However, none of that, not the sandy patch with the colourful plaice, nor the rocky reef that attracted the cod, exists anymore. “In essence, in my lifetime, all of that has disappeared,” says Ashley.

Crucially, “nobody is aware of what was so they don’t see it as a loss”, says the fisherman. And how has this loss been allowed to happen? Ashley puts it down to poor management of the stocks in Irish waters.

“The scientists will say you have to stay at x [in terms of fishing quotas] but the politicians say y, which is always more, because they don’t want to upset the people,” says Ashley.

If you go fishing now where Ashley and his father and his two grandfathers used to fish, you would not catch what they caught for decades on end. “If you put 200 hooks down now you would catch small whiting, small dab, small gurnard, small dogfish, and smooth hound,” says Ashley.

George Karbus: "The most incredible moment you can have as an underwater photographer is inside a pod of hunting Orcas. Just myself and 50 black and white wolves of the sea for three hours. An underwater madness which is hard to describe." Photo: George Karbus
George Karbus: "The most incredible moment you can have as an underwater photographer is inside a pod of hunting Orcas. Just myself and 50 black and white wolves of the sea for three hours. An underwater madness which is hard to describe." Photo: George Karbus

“They are the visible remnants of what was a great mixed fishery,” he adds. Another huge change along our coastlines can be seen in the non-existence of fishing competitions.

Up to 200 anglers would compete along the eastern beaches annually. In 1989, the competition in Greystones was so significant that it attracted sponsorship from the ferry company Sealink as well as Bord Fáilte.

“There were teams from all over Europe, such was the quality of the fishing. These competitions don’t happen anymore, not because people have moved on, it’s because the resource doesn’t enable it anymore, and socio-economically you’re losing out,” says Ashley.

It’s as if the “larder” has been completely emptied out, and what has happened in Greystones is just a microcosm of what has happened in every other fishing village around Ireland, believes the fisherman.

Ashley used to feel angry about the situation in our seas, but today he focuses his energy and knowledge on solutions.

I’ve gone from scratching my head to being very angry to having solutions. If we can step back from the polarisations and having a go at a particular sector.

"What I’m saying is it could be better, and do we want that better option?” asks Ashley.

What is his better option?

“I believe a solution to these environmental problems is community management of our seas and a wider inclusion of stakeholders, I mean everybody, you are a stakeholder, if you even just look at the sea when you go for a walk,” says Ashley.

On a practical level he understands that habitats have their own ability to regenerate if left to their own devices for a five to ten-year period. And humans then need to come up with a better way to manage fishing in our seas, which would include a balance between commercial fishing vessels and artisan commercial fishers, so local fishermen being able to catch decent fish along the coasts of their own villages.

“Imagine being able to walk out your door and down to the harbour to buy an adult-size cod or plaice or sole or ray that was caught in your neighbourhood?

“They talk about zero-carbon footprint on your food, we had all that and we threw it away. But we can have it again,” says Ashley.

He sees a future where everybody has a say and a stake in management of our marine resources, because they belong to everyone. If we can have “community management” and allow for the regeneration of stocks, it will “benefit our society to a much greater degree than it does today”.

“And artisan commercial fishers and recreational fishers will be side by side getting on famously, because that’s the way it always was,” says Ashley.

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

LOTTO RESULTS

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

  • 3
  • 8
  • 20
  • 24
  • 28
  • 29
  • 40

Full Lotto draw results »

Execution Time: 0.24 s