Return to Erris Head

Erris Head, County Mayo

I first visited Erris Head by bicycle back in the 1990’s. In 1993 I was back on the International Federation of Animal Welfare’s whale research yacht, “Song of the Whale.” They came to support a project I was promoting in Mayo to build an Ocean visitor centre in Blacksod Bay. The idea was to tell the story of the Inishskea Islanders, the two Norwegian whaling stations on the Mullet peninsula and to have a place to explore the ocean. “Song of the Whale” stayed for three weeks. We did the first acoustic and visual survey of whales and dolphins in Ireland off the Mullet peninsula with young scientists from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

The industrial whaling legacy left by the Norwegians (1908-1914) is documented by James Fairley, a Belfast zoologist, titled “Irish Whales and Whaling“(1981). A film called “Whaling Ashore and Afloat” made in 1908 by Robert Paul shows the whale being caught and brought back to the South Inishskea Island. There it was cut up by the islanders and rendered in steam boilers into whale oil for street lighting and other products.   Robert Paul

In 1993 the “Song of the Whale” survey team discovered six species of whale and dolphin around the Mullet peninsula, including Broadhaven Bay. (Reported in Gordon et al., 2000) The locals wanted a golf course which they got, but no Ocean visitor centre. Sadly we didn’t have the time or resources to locate the Blue and Fin whales which migrate just 50 miles off this coast. The concept to develop whale and dolphin watching ecotourism in the Bheal an Mhuirtead (The Mouth of the Sea) fell on deaf ears.

Historic data from the two Norwegian whaling stations which operated in County Mayo highlight the significance of the only area off the Irish coast with such a rich biodiversity of baleen whales occurred. Between 1908-1914 and 1920-1922 around 895 whales were captured including blue whale (14%), fin whale (66%), humpback whale (1%), sei whale (10%), northern right whale (21%) and sperm whale (7%) all within 50-200km of the coast (Fairley, 1981).

A Gas field is discovered off County Mayo

In 1996 the Corrib gas field was discovered 80 km (52mi) to the west. I thought here was a new opportunity to find out more about the whales which migrate off this coast. In 2001 through IWDG I submitted comments on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Noticing a proposed plan in the EIS to carry out rock blasting in Broadhaven bay Special Area of Conservation for the proposed gas pipe landfall and a lack of regulation I submitted a complaint to the European Commission. The EC asked the government to respond. Enterprise Energy Ireland Ltd responded by commissioning UCC to undertake the Broadhaven Bay Marine Mammal Monitoring program in 2001.Oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group bought EEI, for 5.7 billion euro, on the 2nd April 2002. Shell E&P Ireland Ltd. (SEPIL) – its Irish subsidary, have continued to fund this Marine Mammal monitoring program, making it the best monitored bay for cetaceans in Ireland. However there was no measurement of noise underwater in the marine environment in Broadhaven Bay, which for years became a marine industrial construction zone for a gas pipe landfall.

The worlds largest pipelay vessel the Solitaire laying the Corrib gas pipeline in Broadhaven Bay, County Mayo photo Shay Fennelly 28/06/2009
The worlds largest pipelay vessel the Solitaire laying the Corrib gas pipeline in Broadhaven Bay, County Mayo photo Shay Fennelly 28/06/2009

The expert assessment on the Environmental Impact Statement of the Corrib Offshore EIS in 2001 carried out by Posford Hoskoning for the Marine License Vetting Committee on page 8, states, “Reliable baseline figures for the abundance of all recorded species are required in order to assess any potential impact of the development.” Not just in Broadhaven Bay.

 The IWDG called for a baseline survey in the Corrib gas field in its first submissions to the Offshore EIS (2001). Nothing was been done by the applicant Enterprise Energy Ireland/SEPIL or the authorities to address the offshore data gap on cetaceans in the Corrib gas field area.  The data gaps were again highlighted generally in the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Slyne Erris, Dongal Basin – OSEA1 of June 2006.

In fact, very little dedicated survey effort has taken place in the offshore Corrib gas project area since then. The little survey work done spent very little of their time in the Corrib field area and the sightings which are available are incidental and do not reveal all the species expected in the area. Almost nothing is known about the beaked whales in the canyon habitats west of the Corrib gas field and along the shelf edge or the status of the baleen whales migrating through the area. There still is no data in 2016, a clear scientific lacuna. A slight regulatory oversight?

European Court in 2007 finds Ireland failing to uphold  strict protection of all cetaceans – under the Habitats Directive

On foot of several complaints from Irish citizens on the 11 January 2007 the European Court of Justice judgement in Case C183/05 Commission of the European Communities v Ireland (Failure of a Member State to fulfill obligations – Directive 92/43/EEC – Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora – Strict protection for species of Community interest), stated that, by failing to take all the necessary measures to implement Article 12(1) of Directive 92/43/EEC (2) and by retaining provisions in Irish legislation that are inconsistent with the provisions of Articles 12(1) and 16 of that directive, Ireland has failed to fulfill its obligations under that directive.

Article 12 of the Habitats Directive is worded as follows:

“1.      Member States shall take the requisite measures to establish a system of strict protection for the animal species listed in Annex IV(a) in their natural range, prohibiting:

(a)  all forms of deliberate capture or killing of specimens of these species in the wild;

(b)  deliberate disturbance of these species, particularly during the period of breeding, rearing, hibernation and migration;

(c)  deliberate destruction or taking of eggs from the wild;

(d) deterioration or destruction of breeding sites or resting places.”

Prior to this judgement no action was taken to establish a system of strict protection for cetaceans by the Irish authorities.

The ECJ judgement states para 28 -“In that regard,it should be recalled that Article 12(1) of Directive 92/43, requires the Member States to take the requisite measures to establish a system of strict protection for the animal species listed in Annex IV(a) to that Directive in their natural range.”

Para 30 – “Similarly, the system of strict protection presupposes the adoption of coherent and co-ordinated measures of a preventive nature (Case C-518/4 Commission V Greece, paragraph 16.)”

The Supplement to the Corrib Offshore Report EIS published by SEPIL in May 2008 states – “No project-specific dedicated survey data is available for the pipeline route and field area.”

Therefore an appropriate assessment could not have been made, without the relevant data, as Shells own environmental consultants identify.


Common Dolphins off Mayo Copyright Shay Fennelly

First 3D bottom seismic survey in Ireland

In May 2012 the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources issued a license to SEPIL to carry out a 3D seismic survey in the Corrib field. This seismic survey emitted acoustic explosions repeated continuously every 50 metres for 100 days in an area 122km2, 65km off the coast of Mayo.

Irish waters are some of the most important for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in Europe. Twenty-four cetacean species have been recorded in Irish waters, with seven of these having been confirmed as calving (Wall et al., 2004). 21 species have been recorded off County Mayo. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists several of these as endangered species, including the northern right whale, the blue whale, fin whale, sei whale, humpback whale and sperm whale.

In another complaint (2905/2012) to the European Commission I stated that a Risk Assessment published by SEPIL is deficient as baseline information has not been collected to assess the risk to cetaceans in the offshore area. The mitigation proposed is inadequate. No monitoring program will be carried out to assess the affect of the seismic survey on the endangered cetacean species in the affected area. Remember the beaked whales and the migratory baleen whales.

Under Article 12 of the Habitats Directive, it is an offence to deliberately capture, kill or disturb cetaceans; or to cause deterioration or destruction to their breeding or resting places. In addition, Article 12 requires that Member States establish a system to monitor the incidental capture and killing of all cetaceans, and to take measures to ensure that incidental capture and killing does not have a significant negative impact on the species concerned.” Under Annex IV of the Habitats Directive all cetacean species are strictly protected.

The Petroleum Affairs Division in 2007 failed to implement the strict protection regime afforded these species under national and EU legislation and have yet to ensure adequate scientific evaluation and monitoring measures for the impact of seismic surveys on protected species.

In January 2014 the EC replied, “The Commission considers that compliance with the requirements of Article 12 of the Habitats Directive requires that the authorisation of projects like seismic surveys takes place on the basis of sufficient scientific data on the population and distribution of the species likely to be affected by these activities to ensure that there is no deliberate disturbance of the species. Article 12 also requires that measures are taken to protect cetaceans from impacts of seismic surveys, in particular, as regard effective observation during the surveys….in view of the approaches and the changes that the authorities have committed to, I do not believe that there is any evidence of an infringement of the Directive” Paul Speight Directorate General Environment. 22/01/2014

A Change in Direction

In October, 2014, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, in liaison with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (National Parks and Wildlife Service), established a significant data acquisition programme designed to acquire new baseline data, with the aim of filling existing data gaps with regard to protected marine species and sites in key offshore basins.

In consultation with NPWS, a programme of targeted acoustic and aerial surveys of Cetaceans and Seabirds in the Irish offshore was agreed. This programme has been given the title of OBSERVE and will cost 2.5 million euro.

Under the OBSERVE Programme, a total of eight (8) static (moored) and six towed acoustic surveys to monitor for cetaceans in selected Atlantic Margin waters between 2015 and 2016 will be undertaken. The study area broadly covers outer continental shelf, slope and deep oceanic waters stretching from the Hebrides Terrace to the Goban Spur and concentrated on about four key zones of interest.

The programme provides for both static and towed acoustic surveys to be carried out between the spring and autumn seasons with combined detailed coverage of two zones of interest to take place in each survey year, respectively. The core purpose of these surveys is to use acoustic sampling methods and a towed survey design of standard transect length to best describe animal occurrence, distribution, density and abundance (where possible, otherwise relative density/abundance) within the prescribed offshore area, based on the acoustic data acquired.

Under the OBSERVE Programme a series of four combined line-transect and strip-transect aerial surveys for cetaceans and seabirds, respectively, in Irish offshore waters will be undertaken. Each survey will be carried out within a prescribed season and so will comprise a single replicate coverage of the study area.

The aerial element of the programme is being led by University College Cork with partners Aerosotravia, IMARES, and ALNILAM and the acoustic element of the programme is led by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) in collaboration with the Marine Institute, Jasco Applied Science, SMRU Consulting and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

Links to the websites for both the acoustic and aerial surveys have been registered at:

On the 19th July I was back in my own wee boat “Rebecca.” with Tom Norris from Biowaves Inc. from San Diego and Daniela Maldini, Principal Investigator with the UCC Broadhaven Bay Marine Mammal Monitoring project to deploy an acoustic recorder at Erris Head.

What a remarkable day it was, a flat calm gentle swell, visited by Common Dolphins and a Sunfish.

Published by shayfennelly

Marine scientist and photographer. Interested in all marine ecology, exploration, science and technology.

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