By Caroline Burrow
Humans have lived alongside seals in Ireland for thousands of years, and they are part our ecological and cultural heritage. Seals inhabit Irish myths and legends, with stories of a deep and often complex relationship between humans and seals. Folktales tell of seals who rescue drowning humans, selkies, shapeshifting seal women who are taken by men to be their brides, mother seals that suckle human babies, and of fishermen injuring a seal only to then come across a human with the same injury who requires a promise that no seal will be harmed again. The central themes of these narratives are often that of learning to respect the seals and live in harmony with them.
In Ireland there are two species of seal; the grey seal and the smaller, common seal (also known as the harbour seal). Previously hunted in Ireland for their meat, fur and oil, in 1914 seals were nearly extinct with less than 500 seals in Irish and UK waters combined. The Wildlife Act of 1976 and The EU’s Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1972, now protect seals, making it illegal to kill them.
Donegal is known as one of the best places in Ireland to see seals in the wild. With regular sightings, a number of haul out sites around the coastline, and reports of a number of seal colonies, each comprising of up to 250 seals, it’s easy to think that seals in Donegal are thriving. If you ask local fisherman how many seals there are, the good humoured reply is often “too many”.
“There a fewer grey seals than African elephants” states Melanie Croce, Environmental Scientist and Executive Director for Seal Rescue Ireland. Around 50% of the global grey seal population is located in Irish and UK waters and seal surveys suggest that nearly a third of Ireland’s grey seals are located on the coast of south-west Donegal with specific sites in the county being identified as nationally important in their conservation.
Common seals have a similar global population of around 300,000 – 500,000. The situation for common seals in Ireland is even more concerning. They are identified as a species of “special concern” and their numbers are declining, with only approximately 3,000 – 4,000 remaining in Irish and UK waters combined.
The seal population recovers very slowly as seals only have one pup a year, with only 50% of those pups surviving. Our seals in Donegal and the Irish seal population as a whole are therefore extremely precious.
There are a number of different threats to seals including water pollution, habitat loss, disease, limited food sources, the effects of climate change, human disturbance and plastic pollution.
Climate change impacts upon our local weather system and an increased number and severity of storms hitting the Irish coastline are putting seals at risk of injury and drowning. Seal pups can become separated from their mothers or orphaned, thus making their survival unlikely.
The rise in water temperature due to climate change also affects seals as it reduces the phytoplankton and zooplankton populations, which make up the bottom of the food chain, leading to reduced food sources for the seals as the apex predator at the top of the food chain.
This rise in water temperature can also lower seals’ immune function. Seals’ immune systems are also detrimentally affected by water pollution and sewage runoff, which leaves them vulnerable to disease, parasite infestation and infection.
Plastic waste and other forms of rubbish cause injury and death to seals and other marine life. Plastic bottles, bags etc. break down into microparticles and are ingested by marine animals. Seals often mistake plastic waste as food and gulp it down whole as if it was a fish. As seals do not have a gag reflex this waste becomes lodged in their digestive tract, meaning they cannot feed properly. This can lead to a slow, distressing death from starvation.
In terms of food sources, humans are the biggest competitors with seals for fish. The relationship with seals and fisherman can be highly conflictual and indeed in recent years there have been calls for seal culls across Ireland, including Donegal.
However speaking to local small scale fisherman reveals a respect for the seals. They describe how seals would steal fish from their nets (depredation) and impact upon their livelihood, although they also acknowledge that the seals must “find a way to live” too.
In recent years the fisherman in Donegal are no longer in competition with the seals as their catch has changed, with many fisherman now catching lobster or crab rather than the salmon which used to be their primary catch. The small scale local fishing industry in Donegal and seals now face a common enemy.
The rise in industrialised fishing by supertrawlers in Irish waters. Irish fish stocks are being depleted with EU reports of unsustainable overfishing in Irish waters of up to 22% more than recommended quotas.
These supertrawlers not only cause a threat to seals by the reduction of their food sources, seals are often landed as bycatch. By catch is where marine life indiscriminately gets caught in the trawlers’ nets. In addition to seals, bycatch may include nontargeted fish species, dolphins and sharks. The seals are killed by drowning and local anecdotes tell of the bodies of seals and other protected marine creatures being extracted from the ice used to preserve the catch on the large trawlers in Killybegs harbour. There is no data on the numbers of marine life killed by bycatch and there is currently no supervision on fishing boats in Irish waters, but the EU has suggested that there are illegal fishing practices occurring on these ships.
The fishing industry can also pose a threat to seals from ghost nets. Research suggests that 40-50% of the plastic in the Oceans is made up of discarded fishing equipment. These “ghost nets” do not degrade and cause injury and death of seals and other wildlife when they become entangled. A recent news report in May 2021 showed pictures of a seal in Cork entangled in fishing nets. Seal Rescue Ireland treat many cases of entanglement each year in their rehabilitation centre in Courtown, Co. Wexford. Sadly, many seals throughout Ireland die a slow and painful death as a result of entanglement as it is often difficult to catch and rescue them.
Habitat loss and human disturbance are also major threats to seals.
Habitat loss can occur for a number of reasons including the human activities of fishing, aquaculture, leisure and tourism. All of which are major industries, providing much needed local employment in Donegal. These industries also contribute to the disturbance of seals. Seals require safe haul out sites on land so they may rest, breed and raise their pups. If seals have less places to haul out due to habitat loss or if they are disturbed they spend more time in the water, impacting on their natural behaviours and putting them at risk.
A seal survey conducted in 2011 for the National Parks and Wildlife Service reported seal disturbance in Donegal including shellfish harvesting, quad bike activity and low flying aircraft.
Seal Rescue Ireland (SRI) rescues many seals as a result of human disturbance with incidents including dog attacks and mothers abandoning their pups as a result of humans getting too close.
It’s important that we reduce these threats to seals and help restore their habitats and rebuild their population as they have been part of the ecosystem of Ireland for thousands of years. Melanie Croce from Seal Rescue Ireland states “Seals have evolved alongside the fish populations. They are an apex predator and are essential to healing and maintaining our marine ecosystem. Seals kill off the unhealthy fish and keep the fish population healthy.”
Melanie also describes how seals are a ‘bio-indicator’ species, in that the health of the seal population indicates the general health of their habitats. “If we’re getting a lot of sick seals from a particular area, it could be a warning of a wider environmental issue that impacts more than just seals.
Seal Rescue Ireland is the only rehabilitation centre for seals in Ireland. They are currently only able to rescue seal pups due to their limited facilities, the majority of their funding coming from donations and product sales. The organisation relies heavily on volunteers both at their rehabilitation centre in Courtown and in their rescue network which covers the entire country.
The number of seals rescued increases year on year, with 165 seals rescued in 2020. In 2021 within only a few weeks of the beginning of the common seal breeding season 3 pups have already required rescue in Co. Donegal alone. The number of dead seal reports is also increasing with 202 recorded for 2020, almost double the number reported in 2019.
Every seal rescued by Seal Rescue Ireland displays at least one of the examples of the threats described above, some requiring care and rehabilitation as a combination of issues.
Their executive director, Melanie Croce, reports that 2021 has been the first year that seals have returned to the centre after previously been released. Pups who were released in a healthy state returned underweight with intestinal parasites. Their failure to thrive indicating an unhealthy environment, affecting their immune system and leaving them vulnerable to disease.
When we are faced with environmental threats, we often feel powerless, but there are things we can do to help conserve the seal population.
In Co. Donegal we are lucky to have 14 blue flag beaches and 4 green coast award beaches. However, there is always more that can be done. Organisations like Clean Coasts Volunteers help to keep our coastline free from rubbish. Organised beach cleans and picking up rubbish or discarded fishing equipment on beach visits reduces the risk of ingestion of or injuries from plastic, metal or entanglement in ghost nets.
Ensure that if you encounter a seal/seals you give them enough space, particularly during pupping season. The grey seal pupping season is from August to February and their pups spend their first 3-4 weeks on land. Common Seal pupping season is from May to September. It’s important to keep at least 100m distance from the seals and to keep dogs on leads. This reduces the chance of disturbance, injury and mothers abandoning their pups.
Ideally the creation of protective spaces for seals, such as the closure of Bride’s Head beach, Co. Wicklow during pupping season, would help reduce disturbance in specific areas.
Changes to our lifestyle can help promote seal conservation; cutting out single plastic use, reducing fossil fuel usage, reducing our consumption of meat and fish all help with issues of pollution, habitat destruction and climate change. Seal Rescue Ireland promotes “Meatless Monday” as a simple way of making a difference. Contacting local councillors, your local TD, government ministers or your local MEP to raise the issues of plastic waste and recycling, pollution and wildlife conservation help to make changes towards managing the threats to the seal population and protecting the wider environment.
Getting actively involved in conservation by joining local and national organisations, planting trees, restoring habitats, protecting local green spaces and calling for marine protected areas all contribute to a healthier marine environment for seals. EU requirements are that by 2020 10% of Irish waters should be designated as marine protected areas (MPAs), with this target rising to 30% in 2030. Currently only 2% of Irish waters are designated and there is no enforcement of the no fishing zone.
Ecotourism may be a way forward for humans and seals to live together in Donegal, but this needs to be conducted in such a way to ensure that the seals and their habitat are not disturbed.
James Kenny is a local man, whose boat charter business Seas The Bay offers wildlife watching trips, out of Portnablagh, on Donegal’s north west coast. He takes visitors to view a colony of around 200 hundred grey and common seals. James, who trained with the organisation Wildsea Europe, understands the importance of maintaining the delicate balance with nature when engaging in ecotourism activities, so that our longing to see these creatures and to learn about them, doesn’t detrimentally affect their natural behaviours and safe havens. James talks passionately about the need to conserve and restock the ocean and how he educates his passengers about the seals and other local wildlife.
As a result of restrictions, and changes to our lifestyle due to the Covid-19 pandemic many people report they have reconnected to the natural environment. This can be viewed as an opportunity to reset our course in our relationship with the natural environment. With domestic tourism likely to increase in Donegal, as international travel restrictions continue, there is potential for us to move in the right direction by becoming more involved in both protecting and promoting the seals of Donegal.
As you walk along the shoreline in Donegal you can feel the magic of the seals who inhabit this liminal world where the land meets the ocean. You may catch a glimpse of them watching you from the water with their soulful eyes and human-like faces, and possibly, like I did, you may fall under the spell of this sacred creature. And as we become aware of how our increasing consumption threatens our planet, you may remember the old folktales and again learn to live in harmony with the seals.