West Donegal whale protection group formed as threats to human health resurface

Following an often emotional public meeting held at Teac Jack in Glassagh earlier this week, a wildlife protection group has been formed in west Donegal to lobby for government policy changes towards stranded marine animals and to promote specialized training.

The ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group,’ which was established at the Tuesday evening meeting, follows concerns by many local people about the treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales that were left stranded on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, which all died of slow suffocation after five days. It is the 13th such stranding this year in Donegal, including a sperm whale stranded off Machaire Rabhartaigh beach. Around 32 other whales died off Rutland Island two years ago and were cut up and transported to Cavan where they were incinerated.

Meanwhile, concerns have arisen as to what caused the mysterious deaths of all the whales amid a recent rise in the numbers of marine animals being stranded off Donegal’s coast.  And that, whatever it is, may also be a hazard to human health.

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A stranded pilot whale struggles for life at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, west Donegal. (Photo by Antonia Leitner).

Chairperson of the meeting, Amanda Doherty, with Selkie Sailing, who has also launched a petition that has attracted more than 230 signatures on the issue, said she was pleased by decisions those attending had made together.

“We want to raise community awareness and have the current policy regarding cetacean strandings in the area reviewed,” she said. “It should be a more flexible policy to allow for the particulars of different situations that occur. This is best practice according international standards and Ireland should follow it.”

Some people at the meeting – many of whom tried their best to save the dying whales – became emotional as they described the traumatic situation at Ballyness beach and the agony of the cetaceans as they slowly died of suffocation in shallow water.

Members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), led by Dave Duggan and Pat Vaughan, decided “to let nature takes its course” rather than try to save the whales or apply euthanasia to reduce the whales’ suffering. They also did not ask the coastguard for assistance to bring the whales out to sea, as has happened in other parts of Ireland. The state-funded Donegal county veterinary office under the leadership of Charles Kealey, chief veterinary officer, has also come under criticism for refusing to get involved in any way to help the whales, including making sure the mammals were dead before they were buried. (In contrast, see photo below of a cetacean (dolphin) being treated more humanely in another part of Ireland, with vets and the coastguard involved).

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Westport-based Irish Coastguard assist with a stranded Common Dolphin which could not be refloated. A Mayo vet administered an injection to humanely end its suffering. Photo by Shay Fennelly

Pearse Doherty Sinn Fein TD for west Donegal, who has submitted a number of formal questions over the last week in the Dail to Ministers regarding the treatment of stranded whales and other cetaceans, attended the meeting and gave his advice on the best way forward for the group. Doherty said it was important the new group work with current organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and suggested a two-pronged approach – making sure policy at the IWDG matched international standards, and the establishment of  ‘first responders’ in the local area, recognized by the NPWS and IWDG – people who could take the lead in developing situations.

The newly-formed ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ decided to hold monthly meetings and invite Simon Berrow, founder of the IWDG, to provide specialized training for members on how to best help stranded whales and other cetaceans and to meet with a small working group on the same day to discuss further action. Clare-based Berrow is a full-time lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology teaching on the Applied Freshwater and Marine degree course and project manager of the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation.

After being contacted about the meeting, Berrow told the author of this blog, “We are delighted to hear of the formation of a local group. We look forward to working closely with them to prepare a better response to stranded cetaceans in the future and also to encourage local recording.”

Offshore toxic waste dumping? Military submarine activity?

At the same time, concerns regarding the health hazards to human life – as well as marine – from toxic dumping at sea and military submarine activity and experiments that may have caused the strandings have resurfaced locally.

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Oceans that become graveyards for poisonous debris that pose dangers to human as well as marine life.

International regulations state that discharges of waste material – often poisonous by nature – should not be made within a certain distance of any landmass, according to the Seas at Risk. But who’s watching? Some major ports have cleaning facilities such as Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, but this costs money so some incorrigible corporations say ‘why bother’? As the coast of Donegal is in direct line of most transAtlantic ocean traffic between Europe and the Americas, the amount of waste dumped offshore is probably immense, one respected scientist saying ‘enough to create mountains under the sea.’ Much of this material contains cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) such as manganese, benzene, coal-tar, radium, petrolatum, parabens, vinyl chloride lead and zinc. With recent technological developments, many of these chemicals are in the form of deadly nanoparticles (particles less than the size of a human or animal cell) which, airborne, can then penetrate the cells, causing untold damage.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Could this be the cause or partial cause of disease in whales and other marine animals? Researchers say they have found large quantities of these chemicals in the whale tissue samples taken and tested. And doctors report larger than normal incidences of human cancer in local people.

In addition, some of the waste is in the form of non-biogradable plastics. Because they don’t dissolve but break up into smaller elements, these plastics have formed what scientists now call ‘plastic islands’ – often the size of countries, one is larger than the US state of Texas, which in itself is 17 times larger than Ireland – that float in our seas, causing disruption to the normal flow of currents. Consequently, the dangers to both human as well as marine animal health is high. For a long time, many people in northwest Donegal have suspected such dumping to have taken place offshore, with menacing results (see further information here).

A special group was established within the last two years at Ionad Naomh Pádraig in Dore by Freddie O’Donnell and Aodán Ó’Gallchoir to examine correlations between high levels of cancer in the Gaeltacht area and dumping of waste in coastal waters nearby. Known as ‘Scaoil Saor ó Ailse’ (Break Free from Cancer’), the group’s public relations officer, Joe Diver, said former local doctor Paddy Delap, said such waste was affecting peoples’ health, particularly cancers of the skin, lung and brain, with an abnormally high level of fatalities. A deep-sea diver then broke his decades-old silence on Raidó na Gaeltachta, describing how he found a large area of the sea bed littered with large black drums with hazardous signage on them in the waters off Tory Island, adding, “We were looking for shipwrecks, went down 40 to 45 metres and came across black drums with green stuff growing on them. There were a few thousand of them. They were heaped in a hill-like structure and had skull and crossbones on them. The diver said the drums would have since disintegrated and their hazardous material dissolved into the ocean off the Gaeltacht coast.”

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Military submarine activity and experiments at sea: what are the hazards for Man, Plant and Animal?

Areas affected could include Gaoth Dobhair, Cloughaneely and The Rosses. Calls for greater funding for a more comprehensive analysis were ignored by the relevant authorities, mainly on the instructions of Dublin, some say for economic and political reasons. Further, fearing such research could stir up waves of protest if the result became known, efforts were made by authorities, mainly Fianna Fail, then in power, to trivialize what little had become known. Politics and money trumped peoples’ health and once again the ‘Forgotten County’ was forced to live up to its unfortunate title.

Damage control became main concern for a certain cadre of elite: the party in power in the Dail and its big-business supporters. “This situation has been going on for far too long,” said one medical practitioner who has treated cancer patients in the area. “It is long past time national funding was made available to investigate this situation thoroughly. If it happened in certain other parts of the country, it probably would already have taken place long ago. Surely the deaths of so many marine animals and the high number of cancers affecting people means the issue should be looked at very closely.  To some extent, it’s in the hands of ordinary people. They should be lobbying their government representatives by e-mail, phone and letter. If not, nothing will be done.”

Several of the whales at Ballyness beach were found to have lesions, blemishes and lumps on its skin, but National Parks and Wildlife Service officials declined to say where any disease may have originated. As whales are highly social creatures that travel in communities, some say healthy whales may have refused to abandon sick or injured pod members and followed them into shallow water. “We can’t say for certain,” said Pat Vaughan, district conservation officer for the NPWS. “What we do know is that whales and other marine animals can have high levels of certain toxic elements in their bodies.”

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Stranded pilot whales buried alive?

Below is a more extensive story to the one I wrote for the front page of yesterday’s (Monday) ‘Donegal News’ on the seeming lack of co-ordination, expertise and simple know-how that led to the tragic deaths of a pod of 12 young and adult pilot whales from slow suffocation at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh last week.

Following public outcry over how 12 pilot whales were left by conservation officials to suffocate over the last week at a west Donegal beach, talks have been initiated between the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS) over alleged mistreatment.

In a message from the founder and executive officer of IWDG, Professor Simon Berrow voicing concerns over the handling of some of the stranded whales at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh and the need for an immediate meeting with the NWPS.

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Wildlife service and Donegal county officials on whale death watch

One wildlife service official, who declined to be named out of fear his job would be in jeopardy, acknowledged “it was a disgusting situation, terrible decisions were made,” adding “management heads at the service should roll over this debacle.” The official added, however, that calls were made to the IWDG seeking guidance and were not returned. “Where were the experts when we desperately needed them?” the official added. “We could have done with that, a simple phone call back to talk us through what we should do. Even a picture, a video on a smart phone would have helped.”

It is believed internal reports – mainly critical of the overall operation at Ballyness beach – are to be submitted within the next few days to higher levels of national management within the wildlife service. “We have so many lessons to learn for this mess,” one official said.

Referring to two stranded pilot whales – highly-intelligent members of the dolphin family – that were helped back into the water by Gareth Doherty, local environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast with Selkie Sailing in Derrybeg, Berrow wrote: “Gareth, well done with all your efforts on the beach. These whales should have been euthanized after they re-stranded. It is not that difficult. Pentabarbitone or shooting would have been effective. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group are seeking a meeting with NPWS to try and establish who is legally responsible for managing these live stranding events. IWDG think it is NPWS. It is simply not good enough to say there was nothing that could be done.”

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Tortured whale draws its last breath.

In contrast, Pat Vaughan, a local district conservation officer for the National Parks and Wildlife Service in charge of the stranded whale operation at Ballyness, said during the week that ‘mercy killing’ could not be used as “it is hard to find the drug and no vet has been trained locally to administer it as it requires special skill.” Vaughan acknowledged that no vet was consulted before the decision was made to allow “nature to take its course” and the whales to suffocate. “No vets are trained for this kind of thing here in Donegal,” he said. “No local vets want to be involved in situations like this.”

The Donegal county vet nor any of his associates offered to help deal with the tragic situation. This being the case, with no expert advice on hand, wildlife and environmental officials say it is quite likely some whales were buried alive. “Without the proper training and because the mammals are so large, knowing when they have died is not easy,” one official said. “What might have happened doesn’t bear thinking about. Their agony must have been excruciating.”

The message on the Selkie Facebook left by Berrow – a national expert on marine life who is a full-time lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and has worked with the British Antarctic Survey and the International Whaling Commission – reflects confusion surrounding the handling of the situation at Ballyness beach. His communication highlights the lack of clear policy on such incidents in Ireland, not only with regard to which organization should be in charge but how to conduct a proper assessment about how the whales should be treated. After founding the IWDG in 1990, Berrow also helped establish the Irish Basking Shark Study Group in 2009.

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Environmentalist and wildlife lover, Gareth Doherty, tries to assist struggling whales at Ballyness beach.

A clear SOP (standard operating procedure) for dealing with whale strandings has become ever more important in Donegal as the ‘Ballyness tragedy’ is the 13th such incident in the county this year, not to mention the pod of 32 whales that died in Rutland Island two years ago that were cut up and transported to Cavan for incineration. A minke whale’s body was discovered off Bloody Foreland and left there on the rocks below a cliff to rot for two months and sperm whale was washed up on Magheraroarty beach and died.

“Statutory bodies – health, county officials, the Gardai, the coastguard, the whale and dolphin, wildlife services – we all need to sit down and work out what should be done and by whom in such situations,” said Vaughan, who added, “Our (the wildlife service) remit is just to measure the whales, identify the species and take blood and tissue samples.”

In a further development, the international Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) group, active in over 25 countries globally, said after being contacted that it had provided the IWDG with a formal protocol procedure for cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) strandings. That policy clearly states, “IWDG will normally only consider reflotation after looking at individual circumstances (eg coastal or offshore species, body condition, location etc) and recommends consultation with an experienced veterinarian.”

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Outdated protocol? Wildlife service official watches on while whales die slowly from suffocation.

In addition, those in charge at Ballyness could have availed of one the IWDG’s ‘live stranding kits.’  These kits are located in three strategic places around the country and “are designed to cater for animals up to 4m long and contain air mattresses, tarpaulins, veterinary equipment, torches, buckets etc. The pontoons are used for reflotation of larger animals, to about 6m in length, and if necessary, the smaller kits may be used to stabilize these animals while waiting for the pontoons to arrive.” Reports indicate that no such equipment was brought to Ballyness beach nor concerted efforts made to transport the whales back to deeper water. None of these three locations is in Donegal, even though so many whale strandings take place here every year.

Also, while in other parts of Ireland, the coastguard service is used to bring stranded whales out to sea to try to save them, in Donegal last week, the service was not asked to do this. “We follow best practise but bringing them out to sea is a futile exercise,” said Vaughan. “Rules are rules. We have to follow protocol.”

While in other parts of the world people assist in saving stranded whales, (see video of a humpback whale successfully rescued after being beached for 38 hours in Australia), at Ballyness beach wildlife authorities in charge deliberately discouraged people from helping, with one woman who was bathing a dying whale’s eye in saltwater to comfort the mammal was told to leave the scene or she’d be forced to do so.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people who arrived at the scene of the carnage at Ballyness, many of whom came there to help, were left disgusted at what they witnessed, as reflected in letters to the editor printed in local newspapers and on-air radio and television comments. Their concern for better co-ordination and more humane treatment of the mammals, including euthanasia where necessary, is being harnessed in a special petition that has been launched HERE. It is a petition well worth signing.

In a future blog: Toxic waste dumped at sea off Donegal’s coast – hazard to human as well as marine animal health? The inside story.