12 August 2008

No place to be a dolphin

By Karlos Marx

PCBs, Cadmium, Chromium 6, Copper, Lead, Nickel, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons… Is this anyway to treat our cetacean cousins?

The scandalous saga of former Irish Ispat and the toxic slag heap from hell (East Tip) on Haulbowline Island is not just a human health disaster. It is also a very real threat to the several species of protected marine mammals which frequent Cork Harbour.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has recorded schools of bottlenose dolphins (
Tursiops truncatus) on numerous occasions. Also harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and orca (Orcinus orca). Other species sighted within Cork Harbour include common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and even the odd stray Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) and pilot whale (Globicephala melas). Neither should we forget the seals: the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) and grey seal (Halichoerus grypus).

Bottlenose dolphins were observed off Ringaskiddy in August 2003 when 20 or so animals including a calf remained in the vicinity for nearly a fortnight. According to the IWDG they were using an area between East Ferry, Spike Island, Haulbowline, Roche’s Pt. and outside the harbour from Myrtleville (IWDG). Similar bottlenose activity was reported in Cork Harbour in August 2002. In September 2005 a group of between 20-30 bottlenose dolphins were seen bow-riding a container ship in front of Cobh, and between Spike Island and Whitegate refinery (IWDG).

In May 2007 a school of bottlenose dolphins was seen bow-riding the naval vessel LE Aisling, east of Cobh Town, near the Cork Harbour pilots station (IWDG). They were also seen in the Passage West/Lough Mahon inner harbour area and feeding on grey mullet alongside the LE Ciara off Whitepoint. On previous days they were sighted between Passage West and Great Island, Cobh and between Whitepoint and Ringaskiddy, where they have been observed feeding in water as shallow as 2-3m depth (14/5/07).

Local IWDG members, Conor Ryan and Peter Wilson have been monitoring a school of six ‘resident’ bottlenose dolphins, which in favourable weather can be seen on a near daily basis from places like Roche’s Point, Camden and Carlisle Forts.

The IWDG states: ‘In common with all 24 Irish cetacean species, bottlenose dolphins are afforded full protection under the Irish Wildlife Act 1976. In addition, along with the much smaller harbour porpoise (
Phocoena phocoena), they are also an Annex II species on the EU habitats directive, which means that both the animals and their habitats are afforded priority protection under EU law.’

All marine mammals are protected in Irish waters under the 1976 and 2000 Wildlife Acts. Under the 1992 EU Habitats Directive, all cetaceans are included in Annex IV of the Directive as species ‘in need of strict protection’. Bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey and harbour seals are all additionally included in Annex II of the directive as species requiring the establishment of Special Areas of Conservation (marine SAC).

Clearly, this raises questions about the threat to the conservation status of these species posed by the former Ispat site and toxic East Tip that forms a significant intertidal part of Haulbowline Island. The Island is known to be surrounded by marine sediments contaminated with high levels of heavy metals, complex aromatic hydrocarbons, endocrine-system disrupting PCBs and other hazardous organic substances that were introduced into the Cork Harbour marine ecosystem and food web by the ongoing industrial (including brownfield remediation) activity on Haulbowline.

Is it time that higher authorities (the European Commission, OSPAR Commission, Convention on Migratory Species?) become involved and demand that the Irish Government stop their delaying tactics, corner-cutting, penny-pinching and procrastination and just get on with the job of securing and cleaning up this toxic threat to the marine ecosystem and its protected species?

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