Seal Protection.

Wednesday, 10 November 2004

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 592 No. 2

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Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Cheann Comhairle agus don Aire Stáit as ucht cead a thabhairt dom an cheist phráinneach seo a ardú anocht.

The brutal and illegal killing of at least 60 grey seals on Beg Inish, inis beag de na Blascaodaí i gCorca Dhuibhne, has shocked many people, including many fishermen. A text to me from one such fisherman read:

I live in a coastal community and when news of the slaughter reached fishermen there, the response was shock. Seals occupy a special place in the folklore of Irish people. Some families are even believed in legend to be related to seals, particularly in Connemara. The eyewitness account I am aware of counted 44 pups and 16 adult seals brutally killed. Post mortems have confirmed that some were shot or bludgeoned and a sharp instrument was driven through the head of one. The blatant cruelty of the outrage leads me to believe that those responsible are disturbed and need help. They must be apprehended. Given that the Garda station in Dingle is only open between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., this investigation needs additional resources from outside the area. I ask the Minister of State to accept this and to provide the investigative help that is needed.

[465]Meanwhile, there is no scientific census of the grey seal population around our coast. Brutal killings such as this and pollution are having an unquantifiable impact on this, the world’s first protected species. It is also protected under the Wildlife Act 1976 and by several pieces of EU legislation. Any fisherman knows that overfishing and pollution are by far the real causes of depleted fish stocks. Any fisherman in Kerry knows that marine wildlife, whether Fungi the dolphin, seals, whales or other wildlife, attracts millions in tourist dollars to the region. This outrage is not just a blow to wildlife, it is damaging tourism.

The Northern Ireland authorities have recognised the tourism potential of the marine environment in Portaferry. A visit there will reveal how 100,000 visitors a year are attracted there to learn about marine life, from which all life evolved. The lack of a marine conservation centre in this part of the island makes us shamefully unique among European coastal countries. Let us address that glaring omission, on foot of these brutal killings.

Until now, dedicated and selfless volunteers in NGOs such as the Irish Seal Sanctuary have responded to calls for help from the Garda, local authorities and the public if sea mammals or birds were found injured, a pod of whales or school of dolphins was beached, oiled wildlife needed help or veterinary students required hands-on experience to learn about sea animals. Is it not obvious that Ireland, now more than ever, needs a marine conservation centre which could pay for itself in tourism revenue as does the centre in Portaferry?

Fingal County Council is currently acting on this need by supplying a site in the coastal fishing town of Balbriggan, where a disused Martello tower, old bathhouse, boathouse and slipway provide an ideal setting, close to a train station and just off the M1 motorway. As the Minister of State knows, the population of Balbriggan is expected to grow to more than 30,000, and it needs this facility, as does the whole country.

Balbriggan was last week the venue for an international conference on preparedness for oil spills affecting wildlife. Speakers included former Government Ministers from other EU coastal countries, as well as senior European Union officials. It was difficult to explain why an island nation’s Government was so unaware of its marine environment and its responsibilities to it. For less than €2 million in capital funding, which the Government, through Fáilte Ireland could well justify under the category of projects to attract 100,000 visitors a year, this marine centre could be a reality.

The forthcoming budget is the third in which expectations for this funding will have been given by Government. I appeal to the Minister of State to use his influence to ensure this small investment is made in this project which is critical for [466]marine tourism, education and conservation. Perhaps then, these 60 plus seals will not have died in vain.

Mr. B. Lenihan: Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil don Teachta as ucht na ceiste seo a phlé. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil suim aige san ábhar seo. Táim ag tabhairt an fhreagra seo ar son an tAire Dlí agus Cirt, Comhionannais agus Athchóirithe Dlí. Níl sé in ann bheith anseo um tráthnóna.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to speak on this distressing matter, which has become a rightful focus for public concern and outrage. There is no question that the killing of 51 grey seals in the Blasket Islands was a brutal and cruel act.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  It was more than that.

Mr. B. Lenihan: Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  The seals that were killed were mostly pups just a few weeks old. Seals are a protected species under the Wildlife Act 1976 and in European waters generally, and it is a serious offence to kill them. The grey seal population represents an important natural resource. They are a top predator in the marine food chain. The species is a very important indicator of the level of biodiversity within the ecosystem and an indicator of the overall health of the environment. The Blasket Islands have a large population of grey seal with close to 600 animals counted in a recent survey. This is one of the largest populations in Ireland and represents, I understand, about one third of the Irish seal population.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  No census has been done.

Mr. B. Lenihan: Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  I will outline to the House information the Minister is in possession of in regard to this matter. On Friday, 5 November, gardaí, accompanied by a wildlife official from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, an official from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and a veterinary surgeon, visited Beg Inish, one of the Blasket Islands. This was in response to allegations that an offence of the unlawful killing of seals had taken place on the island. The officials found 51 dead seals, 43 pups and eight adults. While it was clear that some of the animals had been shot, it was not at that stage possible to establish the cause of death of a number of them. Accordingly it was decided, in consultation with a marine mammal specialist from University College Cork, to remove three carcasses to Cork for a full post mortem.

The post mortems revealed that one seal had been shot, one had been bludgeoned to death, and the third had been hit at force through the eyes with a sharp metal object. As a consequence of this outcome a further visit was made to the island on Monday, 8 November, by members of [467]the Garda Síochána, accompanied by wildlife officials, and an extensive search was conducted for the purpose of gathering evidence. At that time one further carcass was removed for examination.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that a full investigation is ongoing as regards the suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of the seals. The investigation is comprehensive and well resourced and all avenues of inquiry are being explored, with the assistance of wildlife officials, in an effort to establish all circumstances surrounding the deaths of the seals.

Bord Iascaigh Mhara is a State agency responsible for the development of the sea fishing and [468]aquaculture industries. I cannot comment on whether it will run an information campaign. That is a matter for BIM to respond to directly.

There is widespread revulsion at the brutality displayed in the killing of these legally protected wild creatures. I share that revulsion as does the Minister and I believe the Members of this House. I appeal to anyone who has information in regard to this incident to contact the Garda authorities, or the Irish Seal Sanctuary if they so wish, in order that the perpetrators of these killings may be brought to account.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  What about the marine conservation centre?

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