Fair seas but few whales

Jun 17

Fair Seas, few whales

Pádraic Fogarty 17th of June 2023

The south west-coast of Ireland has been identified by Fair Seas as an area which warrants designation as a Marine Protected Area (MPA). The Irish government has committed to protecting 30% of our territorial waters in MPAs by 2030 and legislation to allow for this is expected within months. While this ‘30×30’ target is important, the process of deciding where MPAs are located is critical, as will be the post-designation management.

The south-west of Ireland was chosen by Fair Seas for its important populations of whales, particularly fin, Minke and humpbacks, seabirds, sharks and commercially important fish (herring and whiting). Whales in particular have made what appears to be a stunning comeback to this coastline in recent years, for reasons that remain unclear.

Last week I boarded the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s research vessel Celtic Mist as part of their programme of scientific surveys for 2023. This programme will highlight a number of the ‘areas of interest’ which we hope will form part of Ireland’s MPA network.

The thought of spending a full week on board a boat like this was a dream come true for me. While my ideas of sailing the ocean blue come more from my imagination than experience, I was eager to sign up to get a tase for the real thing. In the end, we were blessed with (mostly) fair weather, calm seas and good conditions for sighting whales. The Celtic Mist is a comfortable and stylish craft. It was good enough for former scoundrel-taoiseach Charlie Haughey who had a taste for the finer things in life (as well as being a great fan of our natural heritage). Dizzying nausea during the first day at sea was eased later in the week with ‘sturgeon’ tablets and calmer conditions. The onboard fare included freshly baked bread, pressed coffee and home-cooked dinners. The trip itself could hardly have been better.

In recent years I have been a regular visitor to this part of the Cork coast, where a number of small boats operate whale-watching tours. I’ve never been disappointed. I’ve seen lunge-feeding fin whales, bait balls of small fish devoured by whirlwinds of gannets and shearwaters, blue-fin tuna, ocean sunfish and curious Minke whales swimming under our boat. And dolphins, lots and lots of common dolphins that revel in surfing the bow waves.

But our scientific mission was going to be different. Rather than making a beeline for the whales we were following predefined routes through the sea, known as ‘transects’. While whale-watching boats will tell you what species were where on a given day, a series of transects will give you better information about the numbers and types of whales over a given area. It will give you a sense of which areas are being used by whales and which aren’t. Transects are also repeatable, so changes over time can be more accurately assessed.

Whale watching goes to where the action is and increasingly these boats are accompanied by amateur photographers and video makers. Stunning images of feeding, lunging and breaching whales quickly make their way online which, in turn, can give an impression that our seas are teaming with whale activity.

Frequently however, it’s the same whale that is being tracked day after day. Do we have a false impression of just how many whales are in our waters?

A part of the problem is that we don’t know what a ‘healthy’ sea looks like. Industrial whaling only ended in the 1980s while it hasn’t ended at all in Iceland and Norway. While some populations are believed be recovering, other are still struggling. During the height of the whaling industry, whales were targeted all along their migration routes, from the Azores in the mid-Atlantic, to Spain, Ireland, Scotland, Norway and even the high Arctic. Today, the North Atlantic right whale is extinct completely from this side of the ocean. The famous ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ can blind us to the abundance that was once found off our coasts.

I may have fallen victim to this myself. I fully expected that we would encounter Minke whales and fin whales on our voyage, and perhaps even the humpback whale that was hanging around this area only a few weeks ago. I was therefore surprised and disappointed that after five days at sea with near-optimal sighting conditions, we didn’t spot a single whale.

We did spot lots of boats. Near the mouth of Cork harbour there was everything from mega-cruise liners to fossil fuel and cargo tankers to small pleasure craft. And fishing boats.

It is not that there are lots of boats out fishing at any given time, the industry has more or less collapsed in this area compared to the 1980s, but it is a constant and unrelenting presence. Strings of pots, some up to a kilometre in length, are rarely out of view. For bigger boats, scraping the bottom of the sea with otter trawls is still standard practice and data from the Marine Institute shows that between all the different forms of fishing there is nowhere in this area that isn’t trawled or potted or sieved or scraped clean.

A 2018 move by the government to limit trawling by larger boats, and to reduce to zero the pair trawling of small sprats (whale food) came to nothing after a court challenge. It’s a wonder there’s anything left for whales and birds at all.

A properly managed MPA would bring some order to this chaos. It would firstly exclude all industrial fishing activity, i.e. large boats of any kind (over 12m) and all harmful gear, particularly those hauling nets indiscriminately over the sea floor. The potting and any smaller net fishing, as well as recreational angling, would be carefully regulated and monitored within limits set by science. It may introduce speed and sound limits for cargo vessels, restrictions on anchoring for pleasure boats over sensitive features (reefs or seagrass beds) and regulations for whale-watching boats so that disturbance to whales is avoided.

Such a system would be a vast improvement on what we currently have. However, our MPA network needs to go further. We need areas that are not fished at all. These areas are variably called ‘highly’ or ‘strictly’ protected areas, or ‘no take zones’. They are areas where all disturbance is minimised, including from recreational activities and other commercial pursuits such as undersea cables and renewable energy installations.

At last week’s ocean conference, organised by Fair Seas, we heard that these highly protected areas give ocean life the best chance of recovery. We heard that there is no evidence that these areas have negative impacts on fisheries while a number of studies have shown that they are beneficial. Yet, there is huge reluctance to embrace this idea. We are even finding reluctance to understand that such destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling need to be excluded from all MPAs.

We need to banish this timidity. The North Atlantic is warming at a pace that is alarming even the scientists. Fishing has emptied our seas and hollowed out the economies that once depended on it.

Yet we see that politicians and government departments feel unable to stand up to a dying industry that has wreaked so much destruction. It has to stop. It was encouraging to hear at our conference from Kieran Healy, director of the National Inshore Fisheries Association, that MPAs could be the “saviour” of their sector. There is much to gain, for people and for whales.


My sincere thanks to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, the crew of the Celtic Mist and Fair Seas for welcoming me onboard.