Groundhog day for live strandings

9th Jul 2014

Now that the mass stranding of pilot whales has come to an unsettling end on the Donegal coast, it is time for the post mortem to commence. I'm not talking about a post mortem of one or more of the dead animals (which in itself is a lost opportunity) but a post mortem of the event itself.

In August 2012 a 15m fin whale live stranded in Baltimore harbour, Co. Cork and took upwards of three days to die. There was no doubt this was a difficult one, no way to encourage it back out to sea and a very difficult operation to euthanise due to the size of the animal and it's location. For a short time after this, there was furore and much talk of preparation for 'the next time'. Anyone who has been following this story or watched the distressing images on RTE news last night will surely agree that we as a nation have got nowhere with this. Live strandings are always difficult to prepare for as they always seem to 'wrong foot' with location and/or timing but one thing that is certain is that they will happen again, maybe in a week, maybe in two years time. 

Two things struck me about the photos/videos I have seen over the last couple of days. Firstly, the remarkable enthusiasm of people to help, summed up by a photo of several people in the water up to their chest in their ordinary clothes. The second thing was that there appeared to be no experienced person in charge of the situation.

There are two basic points to live strandings which every decision should come back to - safety and animal welfare. Terrified 6m whales are potentially dangerous animals and so care is needed that nobody gets hurt, especially when good intentions outweigh experience. After this, animal welfare should be at the crux of any other decision.

  1. Is the animal healthy? Should it be refloated?
  2. Can it be refloated with some chance of success?
  3. If it can't be refloated (or is refloated and restrands) is it better to euthanise or allow to die naturally?

It is easy in hindsight to say what should or shouldn't have been done in any particular case but that is not the purpose of this article - it's time to say 'enough is enough' and use some foresight for a change so that when this happens again, Ireland has a system in place to deal effectively wth live strandings. IWDG is predominantly a research and conservation organisation and has neither the resources or authority to manage live strandings other than in an advisory role. IWDG believe that it is time for state agencies to sit down and decide who has responsibility for live strandings in this country. The relevant agency needs to have in place a coastal network of personnel trained in the latest 'best practice' guidelines for dealing with live strandings, backed up with appropriate authority to act as beachmaster when dealing with members of the public, the Gardai and the Irish Coastguard Service.

IWDG believe that the National Parks and Wildlife Service should take the lead as they are the statutory authority with responsibility for the protection of all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoise) and their habitats. All cetaceans are protected under the Wildlife act, whether dead or alive, floating or stranded. You even require a license from the NPWS to be in possession of skulls and body parts. A procedure, including when and how to euthanase needs to be developed and agreed so all authorities, agencies and the public know what should happen in the event of a live stranding event. This plan will also require adequate resourcing. The IWDG are fully committed to continue to do their best to conserve and protect cetaceans in Irish waters but such an event as witnessed in Donegal requires all parties to be working together to an agreed plan.


Mick O'Connell,

IWDG Strandings Officer



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