Whales need more protection

Whatever his many critics might say, the late Taoiseach Charlie Haughey had an ear for nature lovers.

Whales need more protection

By Donal Hickey

Whatever his many critics might say, the late Taoiseach Charlie Haughey had an ear for nature lovers.

We remember days at Dingle regatta, years ago, when he animatedly discussed seabirds, eagles and red deer with anyone who cared to join him.

He would speak with the air of an expert, informed by close observations from his eyrie on his Blasket island of Innisvickillane.

In the early 1990s, Haughey agreed to a request from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) to declare all Irish territorial waters to be a whale and dolphin sanctuary.

Since then, there has been a big increase in whale-watching, which has real potential for tourism. West Cork and west Kerry are now probably the best places in Ireland to see these magnificent creatures.

The number of humpback whales along the south and west coasts, from Co Wexford to Co Galway, is also growing. That’s the positive side.

As Simon Berrow, the IWDG’s chief science officer and acting chief executive says, whales and dolphins are on top of the food chain, so healthy populations of the species are a barometer of the state of the marine ecosystem.

The IWDG believes increased numbers are largely due to the protection measures, but there are some key issues that need to be dealt with.

One is overfishing of sprat, a hugely important food for many marine mammals. If Ireland is to become a true whale sanctuary, sprat resources must be managed better in the interests of coastal communities and the marine ecology, the group says.

As highlighted in this column recently, there has been an unprecedented number of deaths of beaked whales off our coast — 28 for August and September and 46 in western Scotland. Investigations are continuing.

Also, a new UK study shows half of the world’s killer whale populations are facing extinction because of toxic pollution in the oceans.

Poisonous chemicals (PCBs) have been banned for decades, but are still seeping into the seas. The chemicals get into the food chain and killer whales are seriously affected, as are their calves through drinking their mother’s contaminated milk.

These chemicals (from electrical components, plastics and paints) can cause infertility in killer whales with obvious consequences for the future of the species.

Simon Berrow, who has also studied albatrosses, seals, penguins and sharks in various oceans, will be among the speakers at Connemara Sea Week 2018, which kicks off on October 21.

He will talk about the effect the sea is having on whales and what they are telling us about the future of the ocean.

Celebrating coastal people and marine life, the week-long event will also hear from adventurer Dawson Stelfox and Damian Brown, who will share tales from his trip rowing the Atlantic, among others.

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