Circling Sharks: In Conversation with Irish Basking Shark Group

Circling Sharks: In Conversation with Irish Basking Shark Group

Circling Sharks:

 

In Conversation with The

Irish Basking Shark Group

 

United Nations humanitarian aid workers unload supplies from their vehicle
N K Initials for Niamh Kelly
11th of November 2022

Basking sharks are widely distributed across the world’s oceans, but Irish waters are a hotspot for this seafaring species. The Irish Basking Shark Group (IBSG) is a “network of basking shark researchers” that aims to “combine community engagement, advocacy, and research to advance science-based conservation goals for basking sharks in Ireland”. Alexandra McInturf, IBSG co-coordinator and researcher, and Chelsea Gray, IBSG researcher and science communicator, shared how new research contributes to a better understanding of this elusive species.

Photo by Nigel Motyer courtesy of the Irish Basking Shark Group (IBSG)

“Basking sharks are the world’s second largest fish, and they’re one of three filter feeding shark species, meaning they feed on plankton. Basking sharks can reach over twenty feet [six metres] in length. Otherwise we don’t know a lot about them, because they’re hard to study” Alexandra explained. As a postdoctoral fellow at Oregon State University, Alexandra highlighted the difficulties of researching basking sharks in comparison to many other shark species, “For other shark species, you might attract them to an area by baiting or by fishing, or by chumming. You can’t do that with a shark that feeds on plankton. You also can’t bring them onto the boat to put a tag on them, so tagging them is really challenging”. Multi- disciplinary and innovative approaches to research are required to learn more about basking sharks in Ireland and across the world.

Alexandra’s PhD research focused on basking sharks in Ireland and other parts of the world, including the Pacific. This has given Alexandra “a unique perspective and understanding just how important Ireland is for the species. You don’t see them in the same numbers as you do in Ireland basically anywhere else in the world”. Basking sharks tend to arrive around Ireland in April to feed and begin to leave towards the end of June but could be sighted in Irish waters throughout August. Another possible reason for Ireland being an important habitat for basking sharks is “Ireland is a potential mating ground for them but mating has never been observed in this species so far”.

Basking sharks were recently given the status of “protected wild animal” in Ireland under Wildlife Act 1976 (Protection of Wild Animals) Regulations 2022. IBSG has welcomed this development, but “creating a code of conduct, enforcing a code of conduct and then seeing how we can further protect [basking sharks] remains to be seen”. Alexandra highlighted how “it put Ireland on the global stage” for basking shark conservation. IBSG has continued to research basking sharks in Ireland to gain more knowledge on how to protect the species. Several of the research projects completed or currently being conducted by members of IBSG are explored below.

Sightings Scheme

IBSG runs a sightings scheme that members of the public can contribute to as “citizen scientists” by reporting any sightings of basking sharks around Ireland on the website. Alexandra is “analysing the data from that to try to see if there are environmental factors that tend to bring the sharks to Irish waters” such as the amount of plankton or sea surface temperature. Any correlation between environmental factors and the presence of basking sharks helps to understand how these sharks may react to changes in their habitats. These changes include the possible impact of climate change. As Alexandra explains “what does that mean if the global sea surface temperature is changing with climate change? Should we expect those sharks to move?”

Visual Identification Tags

Alexandra also highlighted Simon Berrow’s (IBSG Co-founder) annual work as he tags basking sharks with visual ID attachments. These visual ID tags are large pieces of plastic with numbers printed onto them. Their large size allows them to be read from a distance away so “anybody can see them and hopefully read the number even if you’re not right next to the shark”. The ID tags allow IBSG to monitor if sharks are returning to Ireland and when they are around. Anyone who sees a basking shark with a tag can report the number to IBSG also. If someone wants to view basking sharks in the water however, safety for people and basking sharks is paramount. Only go out on the water if you have the required skills and experience, and maintain distance from any sharks.

Satellite Tags

Photo by Emmet Johnson courtesy of the Irish Basking Shark Group (IBSG)

Another basking shark research project Alexandra is involved in is SeaMonitor. This project is not directly affiliated with IBSG, but Alexandra is collaborating with other researchers including with Queen’s University Belfast. “They’re putting satellite tags on basking sharks, which are basically tags that can connect with satellites overhead and send a location every time that tag pops out of the water. It’s deployed on the dorsal fins of the shark, so it’s out of the water quite a bit because the sharks feed at the surface” Alexandra explained. The satellite tags allow investigation into the capability of basking sharks to travel long distances. For instance, one shark that was tagged with and IBSG visual ID tag at Malin Head in Donegal and turned up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts a few months later.

IBSG is also interested in the social lives of basking sharks. In a recent research paper, Simon focused on a basking shark behaviour where they gather together, “They just swim around in these massive circles together and that’s called a torus.” The torus could be a potential mating behaviour. Meanwhile, “One thing I’m doing is putting these tags on these sharks that can talk to each other so I can see if certain individuals are constantly detecting the same other ones” mentioned Alexandra, “to try to get a better idea of how they’re interacting in these coastal areas, and whether they actually tend to form groups that stay together. Maybe even travel together afterwards”.

Basking Shark Tourism Survey

Chelsea currently is a PhD candidate in George Mason University and completed her Master’s in environmental science there also. Chelsea’s research during her Master’s focused on why Ireland, particularly Malin Head, had a nearly completely undeveloped basking shark tourism sector, but Scotland, especially the Hebrides, had utilised the presence of basking sharks for tourism. The social science approach Chelsea used included surveying residents of Buncrana and tourists on the beach to learn what they knew about basking sharks. “Most people sort of knew that they didn’t eat seals, and that was basically it. They kind of had an idea that basking sharks were big”, Chelsea discovered during her survey. Many people also expressed an interest in going to view basking sharks either from land or on a boat. Chelsea’s research highlights the importance of raising awareness of less well-known species to ensure their protection.

Individual Based Modelling

Continuing with social science research, Chelsea’s PhD project involves using individual based modelling (IBM) to gather results and to develop a method for how to use IBM results to make recommendations to policymakers. Chelsea explained IBM as complex computer modelling which allows for stochasticity (the quality of lacking any predictable order or plan), or “you have agents like I have little individual sharks. My little individual sharks can interact with the environment and they can impact the environment. Or they can be impacted by the environment”. These agents are not mirroring the behaviour of individual real sharks, but each agent has “has a limited perspective, so it can only see a certain distance and then from there it makes a certain series of decisions”. The limited perspective each agent has reflects that “each individual shark ends up doing its own individual behaviour based on what we call bounded knowledge, so that’s that limitation of how far it can see”, and mirrors real basking shark behaviour. Chelsea compares the results from the IBM to the information IBSG has gathered from the sightings scheme and tagging. The behaviour of individual sharks comes together to form a group behaviour and this is known as “emergent behaviour.

Chelsea is also interviewing Irish policymakers to learn how to best convey IBM results to them. The insights gained from these interviews Chelsea hopes will bridge the gap between “how modelers can communicate their model results to policymakers” and “policymakers are understanding the model correctly and then are applying it correctly”. IBM data can be used to inform conservation legislation through providing insights into how changing environments, locally and globally, may impact on basking shark behaviour.

Basking Shark Conservation

There have been several historical threats to basking sharks. These included fisheries in many places, “there was one off Achill Island which is very famous. It was one of the biggest fisheries in the world, if not the biggest for basking sharks” Alexandra explained, “That whole community has really embraced this part of their history, which I think is amazing. [The community] very much recognize and report when the sharks are around now. And family members of former fishermen have been really active in the conservation of [basking sharks] now”. Another threat was the culling of basking sharks in Canada as “there was an eradication effort because the sharks were becoming entangled in fishing nets”. These are historical rather than current threats, but would have affected the basking shark population.

Current problems for basking sharks are harder to pinpoint as research is still ongoing to learn more about the species. Boat strikes and becoming entangled in fishing equipment may result in a few deaths per year, but the impact of these deaths on the population is unknown as “we don’t know how many sharks there are”. Alexandra also highlighted that “another threat that we would be concerned about is anything that’s going on in the high seas because that it can’t be regulated”.

IBSG is a network of researchers voluntarily working towards educating about, advocating for and protecting basking sharks. The capacity and infrastructure do not exist at the moment for members of the public to volunteer with IBSG, but anyone can participate in the sightings scheme by reporting any basking sharks they see. The benefit of drawing together researchers from multi- disciplinary backgrounds in IBSG is clear to Alexandra and Chelsea. Chelsea sees the importance of cooperation to support basking shark conservation as IBSG “encourage a lot of flexibility and creativity” to spread awareness of basking sharks through different approaches.

 Alexandra highlighted “I think it’s very rare that you get to operate at the intersection of research, policy, advocacy and education. I was able to be not only observing basking sharks in the field and contributing to our knowledge of them this year. But then also getting to be a really active voice in supporting their protection and making a very real policy change”.

Thank you to Alexandra McInturf and Chelsea Gray for their support in this article.

 

Featured photo of basking shark torus by Simon Berrow, shared courtesy of The Irish Basking Shark Group

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Horror Movies and Gender Justice

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Horror Movies and Gender Justice

Horror Movies and Gender Justice

Horror Movies and Gender Justice

 

United Nations humanitarian aid workers unload supplies from their vehicle

 

14th of November 2022

STAND Student Festival Exhibition on University of Limerick Campus

Over the last eight weeks, the STAND Student Festival and Exhibition has been making its way across third-level campuses in Ireland. This year’s theme of #GenderJusticeNow focuses on the power of collective action to create change and invites students to sign a pledge to become a gender justice advocate. Students who sign the pledge receive an action pack with information about gender justice and suggestions for how to start making change.

Meghan Mickela, this year’s STAND Student Festival intern and graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s Film Studies Masters Programme, supported the inclusion of documentary film screenings on some campuses. She also curated a list of horror films that explore gender beyond the harmful stereotypes we often see in Halloween-related popular culture.

Halloween may be over, but horror is a movie genre that goes well beyond October 31st. These movies tackle many important themes and complex subjects in a way that only horror can. Check out our Instagram Reel where you can hear Meghan talk about each of these films, or read about them below. Enjoy!

 

Ginger Snaps movie poster

Ginger Snaps

For our first film we have Ginger Snaps from 2000. Sisters Ginger and Brigitte are tested when Ginger gets her period for the first time and begins to experience strange effects. As her body changes and she begins to and she begins to experience more and more strange occurrences, Ginger Snaps uses the horror elements of Ginger’s evolution into a werewolf as a metaphor for the evolution of the female body during puberty. Now a cult classic, Ginger Snaps presents two strong female leads who represent the duality of female adolescence; all at once the beauty and the beast. 

 

 

A Girl Walk Home Alone at Night movie poster

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Next up, the film “A Girl Late Walk Home Alone at Night” from 2014 by Director Ana Lily Amirpour. Late at night, the streets of ‘Bad City’ in Iran are haunted by a girl and her skateboard. Director Amirpour creates a rare horror piece that represents an all too real fear that women face; (walking home at night) and flips the role of the victim onto the citizens of Bad City. Our main character, The Girl, serves as an anti-hero to Bad City while representing the ongoing gender politics that continue to plague Iran after the Irainian revolution. Amirpour’s film is a reigning favourite that is still timely today as women in Iran fight for empowerment.  

 

 

Bad Hair movie poster

Bad Hair

This 2020 film presents the challenges that black women face in corporate America. In  the 1990s Anna works at a Tv station hoping to move up the ranks; she is told she can only be successful if she gets a weave. Things go horribly wrong when the hair proves to have a mind of its own. Bad Hair combines dark comedy with horror to further its presentation of classic racism women of colour face in order to look ‘professional’ according to euro-centric standards. With a killer cast of women of colour this film presents an often untold perspective in the horror genre.  

 

 

Fresh movie poster

Fresh

Director Mimi Cave delivers a delicious take on romance, with a twist; sharp in wit while retaining the horror element. Fresh takes on the idealisation of male psychopaths, while pointing out the irony. It’s a common trend to see male criminals being lauded as attractive or sexy after committing horrible crimes, the film presents a young woman’s perspective of a misogynistic dating culture where she is unable to succeed. Themes including horror, dark comedy, or feminine rage, this one is a perfect fit for those friends who are a little too into their true-crime movies. 

 

 

 

For those interested in other titles, check out:

Raw / Bodies, Bodies, Bodies / Thirst / Thelma / Possession / Saint Maude / It Follows / Prevenge

 

Film is one of the many artistic expressions that can help us to better understand why gender justice is so important. So I hope that when you’re picking out scary movies to watch this Halloween or any time of year, you’ll be thinking about gender justice!

For more information on STAND and the #GenderJusticeNow pledge, head over to 10000studends.ie Take the pledge to become a gender justice advocate while you’re there so that you can receive your action pack full of ways for you to take action for gender justice now!!

 

Many thanks to Meghan Mickela for her work in curating this list and describing the films in it.

 

Featured photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

Ginger Snaps movie poster from Wikipedia

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night movie poster from IMDB

Bad Hair movie poster from IMDB

Fresh movie poster from IMDB

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Taking Under Wing: Seabird Conservation in Ireland

Taking Under Wing: Seabird Conservation in Ireland

Contributor Niamh Kelly shares insights from her interview with Fair Seas’ Sinead Loughran about the importance of biodiversity, the challenges posed by climate change, and how to get involved as a “citizen scientist”.

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Taking Under Wing: Seabird Conservation in Ireland

Taking Under Wing: Seabird Conservation in Ireland

Taking Under Wing:

Seabird Conservation in Ireland

United Nations humanitarian aid workers unload supplies from their vehicle
N K Initials for Niamh Kelly
11th of November 2022

Ireland provides habitats inland and along the coast for many bird species, both resident and migratory. Irish coastal areas provide nesting and feeding habitats for many seabirds. Sinéad Loughran, marine policy and advocacy officer for Fair Seas and Birdwatch Ireland, discussed in an interview with STAND News, what challenges seabirds and other marine biodiversity face in Ireland.

Sinéad highlighted that “the ocean is one of the greatest allies you could have in the fight against climate change”.  Fair Seas (a coalition of Irish environmental non-governmental organisations and environmental networks) aims “to see Ireland, with a renewed appreciation of the ocean, become a world leader in marine protection, giving [Irish] species, habitats and coastal communities the opportunity to thrive”. After completing a Master of Science in Climate Change: Policy, Media and Society from Dublin City University, Sinéad has taken on a role which focuses on communications about promoting “ocean stewardship”, policy consultation with decision-makers and engagement with stakeholders such as coastal communities (including working alongside the Citizen’s Assembly on Biodiversity Loss).

Image of two gannets by Clive Timmons, courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

Members of the public can support marine biodiversity by becoming involved as “citizen scientists” by utilising the BirdTrack, an online tool that allows people to record what bird species they observe, and the information collected forms a picture of bird distribution and migratory patterns in Ireland and Britain. Another opportunity to engage with Irish biodiversity is through the annual Irish Garden Bird Survey which runs from December to February. Sinéad spoke of how the survey is a “really kind of hands-on way that people can connect with the nature that’s around them and the bird species that they see in their gardens everyday”.

Ireland is a regular home to over 200 bird species, either year-round for birds such as robins, or as part of a migration cycle for other species such as swallows. Sinéad emphasised a variety of challenges impacting seabirds (and other biodiversity on land and in the sea). These causes are explored below:

Climate Change

Image of Puffin by James West, courtesy Bird Watch Ireland

Climate change has direct and indirect consequences for seabirds. One direct problem is the effect on prey availability for seabirds. For example, “Puffins, in 2007, were recorded feeding snake pipefish to their chicks. There is a greater risk of choking for the chicks on these fish and they’re also not nearly as nutritious in comparison to a preferred prey species such as sand eels”. The increasing abundance of snake pipefish may be linked with warming waters and this species of fish is not the ideal food source for puffin parents to feed their chicks.

An indirect impact on seabirds resulting from climate change is how seabird habitats may be affected by offshore wind farms, as Sinéad highlights “[we] recognises the urgent need to rapidly decarbonize our society and economy, but it needs to be done in a holistic way. We are in a climate emergency and a biodiversity emergency. They’re inherently interlinked”. Flight corridors to allow birds to access foraging grounds would minimise the risk of collision deaths and seabirds’ displacement from their feeding grounds. The east coast of Ireland provides foraging grounds for seabird colonies in Wales and Cornwall, as well as Ireland.  Sinéad emphasised “how will offshore renewable energy affect bird colonies. Progress efforts on one should not be to the detriment of the other”.

Habitat Quality

A decline in the quality of coastal and estuary habitats impacts both on seabirds and on wider biodiversity in these environments. Sinéad acknowledges that although a recently released report from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states “coastal waters have the highest percentage of all water bodies in high or good ecological status”, unfortunately “there is still a 9.5% decline in the number of coastal water bodies in satisfactory condition since the last assessment”. Estuaries are faring worse as “64% of estuaries are in moderate, poor or bad ecological health”. A decrease in habitat quality impacts directly on any animal or bird living there and “the interconnected nature of our entire water system. We can’t separate our freshwater systems from our marine environment”, therefore the connection between these different habitats means more species and biodiversity will be impacted than only those which inhabit a single area.

Avian Flu

Image of Roseate Tern in flight by Laura Glenister, courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

An outbreak of avian flu has harshly affected wild birds across Ireland and further afield, particularly breeding seabird colonies in the UK and Europe. People are unlikely to contract this disease from wild birds, but members of the public are advised not to handle any dead or sick wild birds. Infected seabirds may travel further inland than usual because of the effects of the disease and come into closer contact with domestic birds and humans than would normally occur. Any dead seabirds, waterfowl or birds of prey should be reported to the Department of Agriculture to monitor the spread of the disease. Gannets have been particularly hit by the avian flu as “they breed quite late in the year compared to other seabirds in Ireland, and so they were still in their colonies. Their chicks were still there, and this was all kicking off from the end of August. Many of [the gannets] were washing up on the shore”.

As avian flu poses a threat to domestic birds as well as wild birds, Sinéad underlined the potential for “a coordinated response for the collection of dead or sick birds” and “further safeguards for wild birds”. Avian flu is caused by a “virulent strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)” and can severely decrease wild bird populations, particularly in seabird colonies with large numbers of birds gathering close together.

Seabird Conversation Project

Image of roseate tern by Brian Burke, courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

Wild seabird conservation however can make a successful and positive impact on marine biodiversity. Roseate terns nesting on Rockabill Island, near Skerries, County Dublin, compose 85% of the European population for their species. This species is also the rarest breeding seabird in Europe. Small wooden nest boxes have been placed across the island annually since 1989, providing the terns with sheltered areas similar to vegetation or rocky crevices which they prefer to nest in. The wooden boxes provide cover from bad weather and predators, provide more space for the terns to nest on the limited area available on the island and allow more eggs to hatch and chicks to be reared successfully. There are now ten times more breeding pairs on Rockabill Island than when the wooden nesting boxes were first introduced. As Sinéad said “such a small space like Rockabill, it’s only about 0.8 hectares, and when you consider how many birds come, that small area plays a vital role in the European population”.

Large scale challenges such as climate change, habitat quality and spread of diseases can impact on local environments and species, and so protecting birds, biodiversity and habitats in Ireland is important.

 

Thank you to Sinéad Loughran for her support in this article.

 

Click here to read Fair Seas new report on public support for better protection of marine wildlife and their habitats around Ireland

 

Featured photo of two gannets in flight is by Gerry Kerr and shared courtesy of Bird Watch Ireland

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Revisiting the Emergency in Pakistan: Floods and Loss of Life

Revisiting the Emergency in Pakistan: Floods and Loss of Life

Revisiting the Emergency in Pakistan:

Floods and Loss of Life

United Nations humanitarian aid workers unload supplies from their vehicle
N K Initials for Niamh Kelly

9th of November 2022

Over the summer, Pakistan faced one of the deadliest floods the world has seen since 2017. According to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, more than 33 million people have been affected by the floods, and more than 1,000 have died since mid-June. The floods have been caused by record-breaking monsoon rains and have primarily affected the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. According to Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman, rainfall indexes in these areas increased by 784% and 500% respectively, in comparison with the average rainfall index for the month of August. The situation in Pakistan continues to deteriorate through October, and has left the country in a state of ongoing emergency.

The humanitarian situation is expected to worsen, as communities and infrastructure lack crisis response capacity. As the monsoon rains continue to fall, river overflows and landslides further aggravate the crisis: authorities are unable to reach affected areas. According to the disaster management agency almost one million homes were damaged, over 218,000 were destroyed,  and close to 500,000 people have been displaced and are now living in relief camps. Additionally, education authorities in the country stated that at least 17,700 schools have been damaged or destroyed by the floods. As of August 30, one in every seven people in the country has been affected by the floods. “Literally, one-third of Pakistan is underwater right now, which has exceeded every boundary, every norm we’ve seen in the past, we’ve never seen anything like this” Minister Sherry Rehman told AFP news agency

The floods have been compared to the 2010 floods of Pakistan, which is deemed as the deadliest in the country’s history. However, experts have highlighted key differences: while the 2010 floods were caused by river overflows during the monsoon season, the current floods are a direct result of climate change. Not only have they been caused by the alterations in rainfall patterns, but also by burst glaciers, lack of infrastructure, and unfit urban planning. Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, an Islamabad-based independent expert on climate change, told Al Jazeera that different flood types can be identified, such as riverine floods, urban floods, glacier burst floods, and flash flooding. “Climate change is a threat multiplier”, Sheikh stated. 

The lack of government capacity, development planning, and adequate infrastructure were identified as main issues in the emergency. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee, the government has claimed that it will take at least five years for the country to rebuild and rehabilitate the nation, while in the near term it will be confronted with acute food shortages. Almost half of the country’s cotton crop has been washed away and vegetable, fruit, and rice fields have sustained significant damage, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal said. A Flood Response Plan by the Pakistan Government and the United Nations was launched on August 30, focusing on food security, assistance for agriculture and livestock, shelter and non-food items, nutrition programmes, primary health services, protection, water and sanitation, women’s health, and education support, as well as shelter for displaced people.

“This super flood is driven by climate change – the causes are international and so the response calls for international solidarity”, Julien Harneis, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, stated. Developing countries in the global South are especially vulnerable to extreme climate conditions, and sadly, they lack both economic and capacity resources to effectively respond to such crises. The number of affected people keeps rising like the tide, and the question remains: when will the international community act to stop climate change?

 

Featured photo, an aerial view of a flooded residential area in Sindh Province, southeastern Pakistan is from UNICEF and can be found here.

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Contributor Niamh Kelly shares insights from her interview with Fair Seas’ Sinead Loughran about the importance of biodiversity, the challenges posed by climate change, and how to get involved as a “citizen scientist”.

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Fate Un-seal-ed: In conversation with Seal Rescue Ireland

Fate Un-seal-ed: In conversation with Seal Rescue Ireland

Fate Un-seal-ed:

In conversation with

Seal Rescue Ireland

 

United Nations humanitarian aid workers unload supplies from their vehicle
N K Initials for Niamh Kelly

17th of September 2022

Ireland has a rich and diverse array of marine wildlife, including two native seal species, common and grey. Seal Rescue Ireland (SRI) is a charity whose goal is to “rescue, rehabilitate and release native seals found sick, injured or orphaned from across the coast of Ireland”. Aoife O’Donoghue, who started as an animal care and conservation intern in SRI and has since taken on the role of donations and membership coordinator, highlighted in an interview with STAND News, how various human activities have impacted on the individual seals SRI has rescued, and also on wider marine biodiversity.

Photo by Aoife O’Donoghue. Finnegas, a male common seal pup, on his first day of fish school.

Aoife explained that “if you counted our marine territory, Ireland would be the same size as France”, and this large environment provides suitable habitats for many marine creatures, including seals. Ireland has a population of about 8,000 – 10,000 grey seals, and despite the name, a smaller population of about 3,000 – 4,000 common seals. Common seals, also known as harbour seals, have a wider geographical spread across the globe than grey seals, leading to their species’ moniker. An aid for the novice seal-watcher to differentiate between the two species that Aoife recommended is their similarity to household pets, “If it looks like a dog, it’s a grey seal. If it looks like a cat, it’s a common seal”. Grey seals are found most commonly in areas such as Dalkey and Howth, have long muzzles, and as their name suggests, have a grey coat. The west coast of Ireland is the most likely location to see common seals and this species have V-shaped nostrils. 

SRI is dedicated to helping seals from around the Irish coast that are ill, hurt or left without a mother to care for them. With capacity to care for up to fifty-five seals at one time and a volunteer network of around 800 people trained and licenced to rescue seals, SRI has observed six reasons why these animals are in need of rescue and rehabilitation before being released. These causes reflect larger global issues resulting from “anthropogenic activities” (human activities influencing the environment) affecting marine environments and biodiversity, as well as Irish seals, and are listed below:

 

Plastic Entanglement

Fishing equipment such as fishing nets that are lost or broken at sea still continue to catch fish, even though the nets are no longer in use for fishing. The fish trapped within these “ghost nets” attract larger predators such as dolphins, sharks and seals. Seals become entangled with the fishing equipment and any attempt to escape can worsen the situation. The entanglements can also restrict a seal’s movement, and this, in turn impacts its ability to hunt, and can result in starvation. Also, if a plastic entanglement begins to cut into a seal’s skin, it can cause infections and injuries.

Illnesses

Healthy seals are usually able to fight off parasites and illnesses, such as seal pox, by themselves. Aoife explained that “poor water quality lowers [seals’] immune system, and it can turn these illnesses quite deadly”. This poor water quality also impacts the wider marine environment habitats and inhabitants. Products that enter the seas from human activities such as “pesticides, herbicides, industrial harbours with metal in them, and raw sewage points” can have a negative impact on the health of any marine creatures living in affected areas.

Injury

Seals haul out onto beaches to rest, but during storms they can become injured if they are dragged out to sea and thrown against rocks or cliffs. SRI rescue seals with “broken bones, bruises, abrasions”, and after Storm Ophelia, more seals required help from SRI than the charity had capacity to accommodate. After taking in an additional eleven seals, bringing the total being cared for to sixty-six, SRI was unable to take in more seals as they “couldn’t ensure the best quality care if [they] kept taking them in”. These seals were rehabilitated and returned to the seas, but SRI hopes to not be in such a situation again of being unable to take in any seals that require their help. Aoife pointed out that “we’re getting way more storms in the last few years and they’re actually way more intense because of climate change”, and the injured seals are one local example of the impact of a global issue. Increasing frequency and intensity of storms may place SRI and other organisations in a position of more marine animals needing rescue and rehabilitation at one time than can be accommodated properly within an organisation’s resources and facilities.

Emaciation

Seals can come into SRI underweight and dehydrated if they are not able to find enough food. These sea mammals then begin to use their energy reserves known as blubber (a layer of fat that insulates the seals and helps to keep them warm). Ireland’s marine environment includes cold coral reefs. These cold coral reefs provide a habitat for the seals and the fish that they prey on, and are also “essential for hatcheries and fisheries. We’re not only fishing unsustainably, but we’re also destroying [cold coral reefs] with our fishing practices” as “bottom trawlers are dragging weights across [cold coral reefs]”. The destruction of these habitats, as Aoife explains, means fish stocks are being depleted, and the way to replenish fish stocks is also disappearing, because the cold coral reefs provide an environment for fish to reproduce. A decline in fish can result in seals being unable to find food and feed

Orphaning

Seal pups can be left without a mother naturally, if she dies, but often if people come too close to a seal pup on the beach, the mother will choose to abandon the pup to ensure she survives to have more pups in the following years. Seal mothers will leave their pups to feed in the sea and return to feed their pups afterwards, so unattended pups are not always orphaned pups. SRI is educating the public on how to respond if they see a seal pup by itself on the beach, and ask that people maintain at least a 100 metre distance, keep dogs on leashes and to ring or Whatsapp SRI if they have any concerns. Seals are protected under both EU and Irish Law (Wildlife Act, 1976) and It is illegal to harm or harass a seal in Ireland. SRI, and their trained volunteers, are licensed under National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) to legally handle seals, but will only do so if life-saving measures are deemed necessary Seal pups are monitored for a 24-hour period before being moved to the SRI facilities in Courtown, Wexford to guarantee the mother has not return to the pup, because as Aoife explained, “[seal pups] are at a crucial stage, they need to be with their mom. [SRI] do are best, but we’re secondary in care compared to a mother seal”.  

 

Photo by Chris Parkes. A grey seal pup on beach in Wicklow. The pup still has his lanugo (fluffy white coat) so less than 3 weeks old and still dependent on his mum for milk.

SRI not only helps seals that are ill, injured or orphaned, but engages in other work such as community outreach, education and habitat restoration. Guided educational tours of the centre for the general public are offered by SRI and seal feeding enrichment experiences which provide a behind-the-scenes look at SRI’s work. These tours, as Aoife said, highlight that SRI is “not a sanctuary. All of these seals that come into our care, they go straight back out to the wild once they’re healthy and up at a good weight again”. SRI also work with other organisations such as various county councils. These partnerships allow surveys of the seal populations to be conducted and beach areas can be closed off during the pupping season if necessary. SRI also had a community outreach stall at Bloom festival in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.

Finally, the conservation centre is aiming to plant 20,000 native Irish trees before the end of the year and hosts tree-planting events. Animal care such as feeding the seals, cleaning out the pools, applying wound care, administering medications and providing enrichment are essential in SRI, but the charity takes varied approaches to achieve its goal of helping seals. Their volunteering and internship opportunities are another example of this commitment. Aoife joined SRI after completing a Bachelor of Science in biology in National University of Ireland, Maynooth and later on, a Master of Science in Global Change: Ecosystem Science and Policy in University College Dublin. She stresses, however, that people from many backgrounds volunteer and work with SRI, “if you have an education background, if you’ve marketing, media, community engagement, obviously animal care and conservation, [SRI have] all those internships”. Aoife has developed professional connections and also strong friendships through her involvement with SRI,  “but honestly, it’s the seals that are the best part. Most of them come in and they’re quite poorly, quite lethargic. It takes them a few weeks obviously, and then suddenly, when they’re starting to feel better, their whole personalities come out”. After the seals are ready for release, “they will just galumph out of their cage and there’s no looking back for them. They’re just straight out into the water”. 

SRI are conducting rewarding and challenging work to rescue seals impacted by various “anthropogenic activities” and showcase a dedicated local response to protecting marine biodiversity. Global challenges such as climate change, plastic pollution and preserving marine environments have far-reaching effects, including on Ireland’s native seals. 

 

Thank you to SRI donations and membership coordinator Aoife O’Donoghue and executive director Melanie Croce for their support in this article.

 

Featured photo by Chris Parkes of Ilia Pika, a female common seal pup, with interns cleaning one of the deeper pools.

This article was supported by: STAND News Intern Brianna Walsh and Student Engagement Manager Aislin Lavin

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