Dolphin and seal deaths in Waterford Harbour spur call for inquiry

Verified reports of deaths and circumstantial evidence animals trapped in ‘bycatch’

Some of the dead mammals were found in a Natura-protected area close to the mouth of Waterford estuary. File photograph: Google Street View

Some of the dead mammals were found in a Natura-protected area close to the mouth of Waterford estuary. File photograph: Google Street View

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A total of three common dolphins and four seals have been found dead in Waterford Harbour over the past week, according to the environmental group Coastwatch.

It has called on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine Charlie McConalogue to investigate the possible causes of the loss of so many large sea mammals in a relatively small area. Some were found in a Natura-protected area close to the mouth of Waterford estuary.

Coastwatch director Karin Dubsky said there were two verified reports of mortalities in the harbour area, and circumstantial evidence they may have been caught in “bycatch” – unintentionally trapped in nets used by boats fishing for sprat in the vicinity.

“The injuries were in keeping with those one would expect from net injury,” Ms Dubsky added.

She confirmed she had raised the issue with the Minister and asked him to outline what he proposes to do as a matter of urgency in response to the destruction of dolphins and seals.

Sprat fishing was going on in the area recently, Ms Dubsky added.

Sprat are mostly used in making feed for farmed salmon.

Coastwatch calls on Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine Charlie McConalogue to investigate the possible causes of the loss of so many large sea mammals in a relatively small area. Photograph: Alan Betson
Coastwatch calls on Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine Charlie McConalogue to investigate the possible causes of the loss of so many large sea mammals in a relatively small area. Photograph: Alan Betson

Ms Dubsky said there was a need for sprat fishing to be restricted in the harbour to conserve other species, while much smaller twaite shad and salmon populations were also vulnerable as a consequence of sprat fishing; an issue flagged “as long ago as 2015 by the Marine Institute”.

Exclusion

In December 2018, following a public consultation process in which more than 900 submissions were received, the then minister for agriculture, food and marine announced vessels over 18 metres would be excluded from trawling in inshore waters inside the six nautical mile zone and the baselines from January 1st, 2020.

A transition period of three years for vessels over 18 metres targeting sprat was allowed to enable adjustment for these vessels, “as the sprat fishery is concentrated inside the six nautical mile zone”.

A policy directive was issued by the minister to the independent Licensing Authority for Sea Fishing Boats to give effect to the measures.

A judicial review was taken by two fishermen challenging the validity of the policy. The High Court’s ruling of Judicial Review proceedings which relate to the directive has been appealed by the State to the Court of Appeal and a stay is being sought on the orders granted therein.

Mr McConalogue said in November he was not in a position to comment on the policy until the matter was resolved before the courts. “However, I am committed to the sustainability of fishing in Irish waters and to implementing the commitment made in our programme for government that inshore waters continue to be protected for smaller fishing vessels and pair trawling be prohibited inside the six-mile limit.”

The department has not responded to a query from The Irish Times on Coastwatch’s concerns about the recent dolphin and seal deaths.