Common Seals in Clew Bay 02082019

Females give birth to a single pup in June or July each year. Pups are very well developed at birth and can swim and dive when just a few hours old. This enables common seals to breed in estuaries where sand- banks are exposed for only part of the day. Mothers feed their young with an extremely rich milk and pups grow rapidly, doubling their birth weight during the three or four weeks that they suckle. Common seals eat a wide variety of fish, including herring, sand eels, whiting and flatfish. Shrimps and squid are also sometimes eaten.

The mackerel are in among the islands. Fishing near Inishoo at high tide Emer caught her first mackerel. Willie and Ivan caught several as well and will dine well come breakfast time.

Common Seals In Westport Bay Photo Shay Fennelly

Grey Seal or Common Seal?- how to tell

Bull Atlantic Grey Seal resting on mussel longline in Clew Bay, County Mayo 04052019
Common Seals Westport Bay 25052018

The Grey Seal is bigger than the Common Seal. The Common Seal has a dog like face. The Grey Seal has a roman or prominent nose. It is not difficult to tell them apart. The Common seal is found in estuaries and bays, especially where you find sandbanks exposed at low tide. All seals like to bask in the sun at low tide. The Grey Seal is more common on exposed coasts and favour remote islands to breed. The Common Seal have their young in late May early June. The Grey Seal have their pups late September to October on lonely seashores.

On the 4th May I visited Westport Bay and was surprised to see few Common Seals hauled out on stony reefs at low tide. Perhaps they disperse in spring when food is scarce. I expect the numbers will slowly build up as the breeding season gets underway.


Islands biodiversity on a March day in Clew Bay 07032019

Hares, Otter, Barnacle geese, Turnstones, Great Northern Divers, Red Breasted Mergansers, Cormorants, Oystercatchers, Pied Wagtail, Rock Pipit.

Irish Hare on island in Clew Bay, County Mayo
Irish Hare on island in Clew Bay, County Mayo 07032019

Recording biodiversity

It was a fresh windy day today in Clew Bay. I took advantage of the the shelter from the north west wind by hugging the south side of the islands. I island hopped my way around Westport Bay and landed on a favourite island. I saw my first otter of 2019. Fishing in the tide just 50 metres off the island shore. She swam north landed on the island cobble ran up on to a boulder and sprainted. Then she disappeared hidden by the seashore rocks. I waited twenty minutes and landed on the island anchoring the boat. I scanned the seashore and saw no sign of the otter. I walked part of the island perimeter and spotted a possible holt. I sat and watched. But no sign of the otter.

A hare came towards me as I lay on the grass sheltering behind a hummock. The hare went down onto the cobbestones of the seashore and basked in the morning sunshine.

Hare flattens itself on the seashore to hide 07032019

I walked the island shore to see if the otter was fishing further along the seashore. No sign of the otter suggested a female nursing cubs in my imagination. I will come back another day soon. Walking back to the boat I noticed a flock of Barnacle geese feeding on the sheep grazed island. I tried to count them but without a scope it was impossible. Try counting in flight. Join me for a day recording biodiversity in Clew Bay.

Clew Bay, County Mayo
A flock of Barnacle Geese (116) flyng in to graze on an island in Clew Bay, County Mayo 07032019
Otter swimming in the sea near Dorinish, Clew Bay, County Mayo 07032019
Otter swimming in sea near Dorinish, Clew Bay, County Mayo. 07032019
All Photos Copyright Shay Fennelly © 2019

Clew Bay – help record its Biodiversity

Croagh Patrick January 2019, County Mayo, Ireland.

Clew Bay’s iconic mountain Croagh Patrick in the grip of winter is a pleasure to see if you live around the bay or in Westport. The Bay itself is stunning to see if you ever make it up to Croagh Patrick’s summit, a myriad of 140 small islands or treat yourself to Michael Cusack’s book, “Croagh Patrick and the islands of Clew Bay”. If you would like to help record the flora and fauna of Clew Bay start today by keeping a notebook and write down what you see. Species, location date and time. Its not difficult. You can also do it online using the National Biodiversity Data Centre website at this link. http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/

You will be following in the steps of that great naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger who carried out the Clare Island Survey 1909-1915. With his colleagues they surveyed the flora and fauna of Clare island and also did some of the inner islands in Clew Bay. But even though Clew Bay is designated as a Special Area of Conservation and a NATURA 2000 site by the National Parks and Wildlife Service there has been no consistent effort to record its biodiversity currently. But if you are interested begin today and submit your records to the NBDC.

Clew Bay, County Mayo - 140 small  islands. Ireland.
Clew Bay’s island archipelago is home to the elusive Otter which lives on the small fish and crustaceans which live in the seaweed fringing all the small islands

Clew Bay, 30 December 2018. The sea is warming around Ireland.

Clew Bay
20032018 Clew Bay from Claggan, Kilmeena, County Mayo, Ireland.

It is almost the last day of 2018 on the shores of Clew Bay, on Ireland’s west coast.The weather is unusually mild. Its dry and the temperature is 10 degrees and a gentle breeze is blowing from the south west. This afternoon I saw a flock of teal, a greenshank and five Curlews on a walk down by the sea shore.We have had the best summer in years and a mild winter so far. Curiously the fleet of fishing vessels that is normally fishing due west of Achill Island is absent and it is not due to bad weather. Where are the mackerel that they normally catch at this time if year? Perhaps they will appear next month in January. Another possibility is that the sea temperature is so warm that the fish are migrating further north. The recently published Stock Book for 2017 shows that the mean annual temperature of the Rockall Trough increased from ~9.3°C in 2001 to a peak 10.1°C in 2006.

Gannets feeding on Blue whiting off the west coast of Ireland

Clew bay, sunshine, wind, and mackerel

Elise and Clémence fishing in Clew Bay, County Mayo onboard
Elise and Clémence fishing onboard “Rebecca” in Clew Bay 06/06/2017 Photo Shay Fennelly/Wild Atlantic Charters

Two french ladies Elise and Clémence joined me onboard “Rebecca” for a sea trip among the islands in Clew Bay over the June Bank holiday. We explored some of the islands and fished for some mackerel in the lee of Inishgort lighhouse. Clémence caught her first fish and got some practise driving the boat. We saw several species of sea gulls and terns with the nesting season on many of the islands in full flow. We watched Common seals and some Grey seals in Westport Bay and spotted one recently born Common seal so far this breeding season. These seals come to shore during June to give birth and mate again around this time but usually in the water. Pups are capable of swimming within a few hours of being born but stay with their mother until weaned. On the way home we saw an otter fishing near Claggan.

Elise&Clermance 06062017LR
Fresh Mackerel from Clew Bay for  dinner! Photo Shay Fennelly/Wild Atlantic Charters


Wild Atlantic Charters in Clew Bay, County Mayo

Come and join Marine biologist and photographer Shay Fennelly. Discover and explore Clew Bays maze of islands, learn how watch seals, try and catch a fish, look for coastal otters and enjoy the hidden island landscapes.

Contact email:shayfennelly@eircom.net         Mobile number: 0834658374

Clew Bay is a complex series of interlocking bays with many islands made up of glacially formed drumlins on the west coast of Ireland. Facing the North Atlantic Ocean the bay is said to have an island for every day of the year. This myriad of islands is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to protect its natural heritage which includes, its shallow bays and inlets, Common Seal colonies and Otters.
Address: Claggan, Kilmeena, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland.
All images copyright Shay Fennelly 2016


What future for Native Oysters in Clew Bay?

Clew Bay Oyster Co-op members dredging for oysters in Clew Bay, County Mayo 22/11/2016. Photo Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto©2016

Oysters have been a source of food for the people around Clew Bay shores from  prehistoric times. ‘Kitchen middens’ which are collections of discarded oysters shells can sometimes be seen exposed on eroded seashore banks and shows our ancestors taste for dining on shellfish picked at low tide.

Honour Sisk’s study into the islands in Clew Bay reveals the importance of the oyster beds to the island communities in the 19th century. In Clew Bay there are many natural oyster beds to be found between the islands. Handpicking and later dredging was practised at all times of the year. The oysters were sold to people on the other islands by the basket containing four hundred for 10d to 12d pence. Small in size, the oysters were of good quality and when not in season. Large quantities were reputedly sold to oyster beds on the Clare coast. In the late 1800’s up to fifty boats and two hundred people are thought to have been engaged in the public oyster fishery (First Report of the Government Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Irish Fisheries 1837). A Coastguard officer warned because the oyster beds were open to the public it would have a disastrous effect for the future of the fishery. In June 1880 a local priest was reporting to the Mansion House Relief Fund Committee there were about twenty inhabited islands in the Kilmeena parish with a population of over seventy families. They are very poor, destitute and wretched as they are also depended much on oyster dredging and fishing. For the past three years they are deprived of this means of livelihood, as the oyster beds are so impoverished, that the Board of Fisheries ordered them to be closed. (Mansion House Relief Fund Local Committee 1880) The Great Famine of 1845-1849 was the most tragic episode of Irish history. In County Mayo it struck harder and turned into a massive human tragedy. The population declined by 29 per cent: deaths and emigration accounted for the loss of 114,057 of people. Sisk (1990 The Outer Islands of Clew Bay) noted due to the islanders practising agriculture and fishing as well as other economic activities their survival rate was far superior to that of the mainland and Mayo as a whole. By 1880 the oyster fishery was destroyed because of overfishing and was closed by the Board of Fishery. The tradition of dredging had died out on Islandmore by the 20th century but began again in the early 70’s. Fishing for herring using nets took place from September to January. The fish were gutted and salted and kept for consumption over the winter.

Source. Honour Sisk (The Outer Islands of Clew Bay) Journal of the Westport Historical Society Vol10 No.1, 1990)

Oyster fishermen land flat or native flat oysters to fishing boat in Clew Bay, County Mayo 1983
Achill currach fishermen (Liam Cattigan and Christy Gallagher) haul in a heavy dredge fishing for oysters in Blacksod Bay, County Mayo. 15/03/2006
Photo Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto©2006

The tradition of dredging for oysters in Clew Bay resumed in the 1970’s.

Mary Gavan from Clynish island measuring dredged flat oysters in Clew Bay 1983
Mary Gavan from Clynish island measures oysters in Clew Bay 1983. Photo Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto©1983
Ostres edulis The Native Oyster Photo Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto©
Pádraig Morgan and Didi Korner take a tea break after a days oyster fishing in Clew Bay, County Mayo 1985. Photo Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto

What is the Impact of dredging on the seabed?

The impact of dredging is largely dependent on the gear type and the sediment type (Murawski and Serchuk, 1989). Any fishing gear which is towed over the seabed will disturb the sediment and the resident community to some degree, but the intensity of this disturbance is very much dependent on the details of the gear and the sediment type (Hall 1994). Cox noted that an oyster dredge which had caused little concern on a sandy substrate caused severe damage when it was used on the softer sediments as it dug to a deeper level. It ripped into both the mudflats and Zostera beds leaving the criss crossed furrows and shattered remains of bivalves. Anoxic and oxygenated sediments were churned up and in places the clay bedrock was brought to the surface (Cox, 1991). Dredging can have an adverse environmental impact. Unwanted organisms, such as starfish and crabs, are removed and the spat which is attached to cultch (mussel shell) or half grown shellfish are laid on the seabed. Any existing seabed community will be damaged by dredging and affected by the silt and mud released by the operation. Harvesting, by dredging, is indiscriminate in nature and can damage or destroy stocks of other food resources, such as Zostera, sand eels (Ammodytes spp.) and other molluscs (e.g. Macoma spp.) (Kirby et al., 1993).

In summary

• Dredging generally has a much greater effect on soft mud than on hard sandy
• On sandy sediment the trend seems to be loss of the older molluscs and sedentary organisms.
• On soft muddy sediment dredging changes the nature of the sediment to become more gravelly as the finer sediments get washed away in the sediment plume.
• The impact will depend on the type of dredge used.
• The habitat may take months, if not years, to recover.
• Dredging may destroy habitat and reduce juvenile recruitment.
• The impact will depend on the importance of the site e.g. if there are Zostera beds of importance to birds/fish.
• The community structure can be affected.
• Dredging can leave fauna open to predation as their environment is drastically
changed, as they are exposed immediately after dredging.
• Overfishing can lead to population crashes in predators and ultimately in the
target species itself.

Source – M. L. Heffernan (1999) A review of the ecological implications of mariculture and intertidal harvesting in Ireland. Irish Wildlife Manuals, No. 7.

Oyster bed restoration

Interest in the restoration of oyster beds has grown recently in the UK and Ireland. In 2017 a Native Oyster Network was formed in the UK. This is a community of academics, conservationists, oystermen and NGO’s who are working to restore self-sustaining populations of native oysters. A European network called the Native Oyster Restoration Alliance (NORA) also set up in November 2017 is aiming at reinforcement and restoration of the native European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis). Network members are representatives of governmental agencies, science, non-governmental organizations, as well as oyster growers and other private enterprises.

Why native oyster restoration now?

Stocks of the European flat oyster are classified as highly endangered all over Europe. The species is included in the OSLO-PARIS-Convention´s List of Threatened and/or Declining Species and Habitats for the North-East Atlantic. In addition, the EU Habitats Directive provides protection for oyster reefs.

The European flat oyster has important functions in the marine ecosystem. Contrary to the currently widely present Japanese oyster (Crassostrea gigas), the flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) is adapted to the deep (20-40 meters) waters of the open sea. As reef structures, flat oyster beds provide a habitat for numerous attached and mobile species around the sea floor of these deeper water. Besides, they have a large water filtering capacity. Therefore, oyster beds are considered to be biodiversity hot spots. The richness of the ecological community dependent on flat oyster reefs was already shown around the 1880’s by biologist Carl Moebius, who investigated these reefs in the German Wadden Sea.

Until about a century ago, thousands of square kilometres of flat oyster beds were present in the open North Sea. The oyster populations collapsed due to overexploitation.  As they did in the Irish Sea and on Ireland’s west coast. Habitat loss, pollution and diseases further aggravated the situation.”( https://noraeurope.eu)

Dredging for Oysters in a currach in Clew Bay 1983 Photo Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto©1983
Clew Bay islands sunset, County Mayo

Clew Bay is a SAC or a Special Area of Conservation for its habitats and species. A term well know to Irish farmers but not to the average urban or ‘townie’ dweller or schoolgoer. SAC’s are prime wildlife conservation areas in the country, considered to be important on a European as well as an Irish level. Most Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are in the countryside, although a few sites reach into town or city landscapes, such as Dublin Bay and Cork Harbour. Conservation management plans are available for many SACs but the public’s awareness is almost non existant. How the public can engage and help protect there local habitats and species has not been encouraged by the government. There is no conservation management plan for Clew Bay SAC. More money is spent by the government on greyhounds and horse racing than nature conservation in Ireland.

There is a stark conflict of interest between fishermen who want to dredge oysters to sell and retain a commercial fishery and the restoration of oyster beds and the conservation of habitats and species in a Special Area of Conservation. When oysters are undisturbed and allowed to grow they will in approximately 40 oyster generations increase in number and form oyster reefs which are fish nursery areas. Dredging destroys Zostera or eelgrass and merl coral beds. Brent geese migrate from Arctic Canada feed on eelgrass to winter in Clew Bay. Maerl beds are an important habitat for many smaller marine plants and animals. Animals that burrow in the maerl gravel beneath the living bed include:bivalves, urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones, and worms. Young scallops in particular seek out living maerl beds as nursery areas. Protecting maerl beds thus helps to sustain a scallop fishing industry.

Is it possible to have a commercial fishery if the oyster stocks are overfished? No its not. Increased management efforts are required if oyster stocks are to be rebuilt. It could take a decade to restore oyster stocks if people are willing to develop a management plan. 

The future for the Clew bay Oyster Co-op (CBOC)

The CBOC do not have the finance to rebuild the oyster stocks. Since the Co-ops inception in 1979 the oyster stocks in Clew Bay have gradually declined from overfishing and Bonamia disease (a parasite that causes lethal infections in oysters)The in the last 40 years. In 2019, BIM have obtained funding from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund to set up an Irish Native Oyster Fisheries Forum to help restore native oyster (Ostrea edulis) populations in oyster fishing areas in Ireland.

To continue to fish in a Special Area of Conservation Oyster Co-ops are required to have fishery management plans. CBOC have no oyster fishery management plan for Clew Bay. The National Parks and Wildlife Service have no conservation management plan for Clew Bay.

The challenge is how to protect the special habitats and species in Clew Bay, rebuild oyster stocks and retain a commercial fishery. If the local community are not interested and fail to engage in the management of the environment.  The benefits we take for granted, will be lost before you know it.

Ian Hicks, oyster fisherman in Clew Bay, County Mayo 1983

A new species, Great Egret in Clew Bay 21/11/2019

A Great Egret feeding in Claggan lagoon, Clew Bay, County Mayo. The Little Egret arrived in Ireland and bred in 1997. Now the Great Egret bred in the UK in 2012 and here we have it visiting Ireland’s west coast.  For the last month Birdwatch Ireland have reported a Great Egret in Westport Bay near Kiladangan near Murrisk. Great Egret 21112019 SF

The Met Service tell us the temperature has risen by three quarters of a degree in the last 20 years. Our climate is warming and new species are arriving in Ireland if you need evidence.

The trail of the Otter

As luck would have it I was in the right place at the right time. I spotted an otter swimming in a coastal lagoon between Newport and Westport. It was once an a natural inlet of the sea but had a seawall had been built creating a flooded lagoon. The lagoon or saline lake has a channel which flows into the sea under the seawall. A steel flap at the base of the seawall stops the flowing tide from flooding the lagoon. The otter was heading for the sea inlet. Otters are difficult to see, especially when you want to see them. Sometimes though, if you are lucky and observant, you can see them first. Then all you need to do is, stop moving, watch, wait and be quiet.

How many Otters live in Clew Bay?

Coastal Otter spraints on rock after emerging from fishing session at Dorinish Island, Clew Bay 07032019

This is a question no one can answer. Why you may ask? No one has tried to count the otters because to do an otter survey of Clew Bay you need lots of time to search and you need to be able to access 140 small islands. In Shetland a female coastal otter have been found to have a territory for every two kilometers of suitable coastline. To discover how many female otter territories are in Clew Bay a person would need to walk the coast looking for otter activity. Low tide is the best time to detect otters. That is when they are most active, foraging in the seaweed looking for fish, their main diet. After otters eat when they come ashore they often leave a spraint (otter poop). Researchers can tell what an otter has eaten by examining spraints. As otters are only seen by accident or by very persistent observers researchers have used surveys of otter spraints to estimate otter numbers. A sighting of an otter is a better indication of otter numbers than otter poop. Otters poop many times a day. Genetic material retrieved from a fresh spraint can be used to identify a single otter. The analysis costs 60 euro per spraint.

So doing an otter survey in Clew Bay’s Special Area of Conservation is not a simple undertaking. When I hear people say, Oh otters are doing well in Clew Bay. I think yes, where is the evidence? There is none. Why is it important to know?

In Shetland if there is lots of fish for otters to eat they found that females would rear two or three cubs. In years when the fish population was reduced they found a female otter may only have one cub surviving. Female otters look after cubs for eighteen months.

In Clew Bay human activity effects otters. They are vulnerable to drowning in lobster pots. The fish otters eat live in the seaweed fringe of islands. Removing the seaweed reduces the fish population. Reducing the fish population reduces the number of otters.

Curlews are easier to see than otters. They are nearly extinct as a breeding bird in Ireland due to human activity. Otters are harder to see and will disappear as we continue to destroy our environment. We live in a country that does not value nature. This Government spend more taxpayers money on greyhound and horse racing than protecting nature.

How many otters live in Clew Bay?

Ireland’s government spending more on greyhound and horse racing than on nature conservation

20110514_gannets_feeding_frenzy_The Irish Wildlife Trust submission to Budget 2018 found that the most recent figures available indicate that the National Parks and Wildlife Service was in receipt of just over €17 million in 2016.

For comparison purposes, and perhaps reflecting the priority given to our natural heritage over other interests, the Greyhound Racing Bord received €16 million of public money in 2017 while Horse Racing Ireland got its hands on a massive €64 million.

Indeed the funding to NPWS is dwarfed by the nearly €41 million given to An Bord Bia, the agency which markets Irish food and drink throughout the world as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’.

We cannot blame lack of resources for failing to address our ‘not green’ and unsustainable way of treating Ireland’s environment. It is the current generations responsibility to change our future. The choice is yours.


https://lnkd.in/gF9suYy  source:http://www.iwt.ie

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