End of our Whaling era

3rd Mar 2011 On this day (3rd March) in 1933 the Irish Times advertised the sale of assets from the Blacksod Whaling Station in County Mayo. This followed the dissolution of the company in November 1932, reputed to have been funded by Norwegian bankers.

A wonderful black and white film by Robert Paul (available on video from the Irish Film Archive) called “Whaling ashore and afloat” was made at the Blacksod Whaling station in August 1908.

Industrial whaling was started in 1908 in Mayo by the Arranmore Whaling Company. A second company, the Blacksod Whaling Company began whaling in 1910. Between them their five whale catcher boats, like the 95ft Carsten Bruun built in Tonsberg, caught 895 whales in nine seasons from 1908-1914 and from 1920-1922. That averages over five whales a week. The whales were often caught within 50 miles of the Inishkea islands, just at the shelf edge where water depth goes from 200 to over 2000 metres. The whale catcher's logbooks would have a lot to reveal if they could be found in Norway. The whales caught included, the largest mammal on earth, the blue whale (14%), the fin whale (66%), the humpback whale (1%), the sei whale (10%), the right whale (2%), and the sperm whale (7%).

The northern right whale off the Irish coast was rapidly depleted, with 18 animals killed between 1908 and 1910 and none thereafter. The species never recovered from commercial whaling and 90 years on is still to all intents and purposes extinct in Irish waters

Today, nearly 100 years later, whales and dolphins are afforded strict protection of their feeding and breeding sites under the EU Habitats Directive in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In the last thirty years scientists in Ireland and the UK have been trying to assess the abundance and distribution of these marine mammals to protect them from adverse human activities.

Irish researchers are documenting fin whales off Cork, investigating the diet of whales, carrying out surveys at sea and from headlands, training a new generation of scientists, promoting responsible whalewatch tourism, using acoustics to study whales, operating an all island sightings and strandings network and have innovative public education programs and a unique website.

In the last decade a surge in oil and gas exploration off Ireland has exposed whales to increasing noise pollution from seismic surveys searching for oil and gas deposits. In 2007, Ireland was found by the European Court of Justice to be neglecting its obligations to monitor and carry out surveillance of whales and dolphins offshore.

Oil companies, like the Corrib gas partners, who were given exploration licenses with tax deductible costs were not required by regulators to commission baseline surveys to establish the current abundance and distribution of whales in offshore exploration areas, where clearly they were abundant in the past.

Hopefully with a positive approach and room for co-operation it will not take another 89 years to discover how many whales currently migrate off Mayo's coast.

Shay Fennelly

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