Threats to humpback whales in Irish and European waters

a humpback in west kerry photo by nick massett


Lack of scientific research and habitat regulation for migratory marine mammals (cetaceans) in Irish and European waters

Humpback whale HBIRL23 was spotted in Dingle Bay at the start of May 2015, (mid-May in 2014) and was followed by 20 plus other humpback whales until the end of October, conveniently fitting in with our whale watching season. The whales then continued on further south towards the waters off West Cork and then on to their unknown breeding grounds, at least the ones of sexual maturity. On one day during the summer of 2015 Blasket Islands EcoMarineTours had circa six humpback whales in the vicinity of tour boat "Blasket Princess"; circa six humpback whales in the vicinity of whale watching boat "An Blascaod Mór" 3 miles distant; and at the same time was in radio contact with another boat with film crew a few miles further distant who also had about six humpback whales in their near field of view.

That is a total of 18 observed whales (by experienced spotters) in the vicinity of these three separate vessels a few miles distance apart at the same time and may well be a fraction (1/2, 1/4 ?) of the humpback whale population off the S.W. coast of Ireland at that time! There are various scientific formulae to work out population density of an observed marine species based on observed numbers, quality and quantity of sighting effort, sea state, weather conditions and visibility, frequency of effort etc. To date no such scientific effort has taken place to estimate the population density of humpback whales frequenting the Blasket islands / Dingle Bay area although such a scientific survey of population density has been undertaken for our smallest cetacean, the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), in the Blasket Islands Marine S.A.C.

These internationally important numbers of humpback whales visiting Irish waters are a totally new development in the short history of whale watching in Ireland. In fact, going back to the recorded whaling accounts in Ireland at the beginning of the last century 1900 -1925, especially off the Blacksod area in County Mayo - The annual catches of whales by the Arranmore Whaling Co. 1908-1913; Blacksod Whaling Co. 1910-1914; Akties Nordhavet / Blacksod Whaling Co. 1920-1922 -  and what they tell us about various population densities of cetaceans then, there was a paucity of humpback whales slaughtered (6) compared to blue whales (124), fin whales (592), sei whales (91), sperm whales (63) and northern right whales (18). leading James Fairley the naturalist and historian of this dismay trade to write "this species (humpback) is rare in Irish waters". This statement is no longer true today.

It is imperative to immediately identify the food resource which is attracting these migratory humpback whales to our waters and to take all necessary measures to protect their prey species and habitat, taking into account the Precautionary Principle and our responsibility under various agreed international Conventions to protect the food supply and habitat of international migratory species. These prey species, including krill which should also be protected, may include sand eels, sprat, juvenile herring and mackerel and whitebait. A moratorium should be declared on all these non quota species immediately including krill which is increasingly being used for health products and sprat which is used as fertiliser and fish meal and is rightfully the food of these ocean giants. This moratorium should last until research and scientific effort catches up on the reasons why these megafauna are increasingly visiting our shores. It may be because of a paucity of resources elsewhere due to depletion of stocks due to over fishing; or may perversely be caused by the fact that inshore overfishing has led to a decline of the fish species normally predating on these so called bait fish, juvenile fish and larvae, leaving an abundance of food for the likes of the humpback whales. A similar scenario has played out with the proliferation of jellyfish blooms in our overfished oceans.

Without hard data which can only be obtained by scientific research, the Precautionary Principle of protecting the habitat and food sources of international migratory species, such as the humpback whales visiting the waters around the Blasket Islands archipelago, should be immediately applied.

Agencies in charge of cetacean protection and conservation in Ireland?

The Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of wild animals (CMS) 1979 clearly sets out the responsibilities of Range States and the legal measures and Statutory Instruments (Agreements and Memoranda of Understanding) that should be implemented at a National level by each Range State towards protecting international migratory routes and species within their range. To date 125 Range States (including Ireland) are parties to the Convention, which is based in the UN Environment campus in Bonn, Germany and all have signed up to Article 2 (3) which states " the parties should provide, co-operate in and support research relating to migratory species".

To date an Agreement is in place concerning small cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Sea (ASCOBANS) and surely now is the time to reassess the need for the same protection status for large whales (ALCOBANS) with the re-emergence of a small population of humpback whales off the S.W. coast of Ireland and blue whales in the Porcupine Seabight area.

This is a sea area that is highly regulated as regards fisheries (protection?) but as an officer from the Irish sea fisheries development authority once told me "Whales and dolphins are not fish and they do not come up on our radar". Fortunately times have moved on from then and now fisheries development plans take healthy marine eco systems into account as a starting point (or return point) for building a sustainable fishing industry.

So who is in charge of protecting cetaceans in Irish and European waters, in particular large migratory whales, and who is in charge of implementing, updating and amending if necessary outdated Appendices in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, for species needing research and protection, especially due to isolated dynamic changes in large whale populations in the North East Atlantic and in particular inshore populations of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae - the only species in their genus)  and near offshore populations of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculis - the largest animal ever to exist on the planet)???

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