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Why are headless seals washing up on Irish beaches?

Recent discoveries have prompted suspicion from members of the public and environmental groups.

Image: Irish Seal Rescue

THE NATIONAL PARKS AND Wildlife Service recently launched an investigation into the discovery of headless seals on a Kerry beach on the suspicion of foul play. 

While the official cause of death has not been determined in these cases, experts say it is not unusual for seals to wash ashore headless.

Due to the weight of the head, and the neck being the weakest part of their bodies, seal carcasses are often headless if they have been tumbling around in the surf before washing up on our shores.

Melanie Croce, executive director Seal Rescue Ireland (SRI), says in most cases it’s almost impossible to determine the cause of death, with the possibilities ranging from natural causes, drowning in nets (by-catch), storms, to shootings. 

“There’s definitely lots and lots of anecdotal information like stories about people shooting seals. For most of the seals that wash up, it’s almost impossible to determine the cause of death,” said Croce. 

“It does appear that they’re beheaded. But this is actually something that we’ve seen for many years and many other rescues see it as well worldwide. 

“Unless you’re doing a post mortem examination, it’s very difficult to determine the cause of death. But, you know, we can’t prove anything either way.” 

In the past two years, 255 deaths have been reported to the rescue, with 153 of those occurring in 2020. 

This year has also been SRI’s busiest for rescues (103), and grey seal pup season is still underway. Croce says there are a number of plausible reasons as to why SRI has seen an increase in rescue call-outs and reported deaths. 

She believes more people now know who to alert when they find a carcass since SRI has become more well-known in recent years.

“It could also be because of climate change and the storms getting worse each year, and more people have been out beach walking with Covid. 

“It’s kind of the perfect storm of situations, [which is] resulting in a lot of information.”

“Seal bycatch is a really big problem in Ireland. Seals can just drown in the net and sometimes their head gets stuck so that can be something that causes it [beheading] as well, but again it’s happening out at sea where people don’t see it.

“It is important to raise awareness because otherwise, people would have no idea that any of it’s going on.”

seal-rescue-ireland-use-wetsuit-mammas-to-comfort-orphaned-pups Melanie Croce, Executive Director at Seal Rescue Ireland' with a week old orphaned common seal pup Source: PA

The woman who discovered the headless seals on Banna Beach raised the alarm as she was concerned that something sinister may have happened to them, given the frequency and condition she was finding seals in.

The NWPS said it carried out extensive searches of most beaches, and other sites, in west and north Kerry but found no further dead seals. 

“While not being able to determine the actual cause of death in these instances it is not uncommon for an increase in natural seal mortality to occur at this particular time of the year and for carcasses to be washed ashore,” a spokesperson said.

“NPWS would encourage members of the public to report any seal carcass that has been washed ashore in suspicious circumstance to their local conservation ranger.”

News of the NPWS investigation prompted similar concern from environmental groups that the seals may have been killed by fishermen. 

The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) said it recognises that seals can damage fish catches and the significant problem it poses for fishermen, “however it is not one that is going to be solved by shooting seals”. 

“We believe that it is essential to recognise that our ocean ecosystem is in a state of collapse and trying to restore that offers the best hope for fishermen as there will be less competition over the available fish,” said IWT spokesperson Pádraic Fogarty.

The group said this must be done by ending overfishing and creating marine protected areas, “things which have been promised but have not been delivered”. 

Johnny Woodlock runs the Irish Seal Sanctuary (ISS) ‘dead seal database’. Similar to SRI’s, it relies on the public to send in information. 

He said that images sent in will regularly show seals without heads but “we also had photographs here of dead seals coming in and their head is shattered. The skull is visible and shattered. That can really only be from a gunshot wound.”

Woodlock said they don’t credit photographers who send in photos of dead seals as there have been a number of cases where people have felt intimidated while on the beaches taking photos. 

Our photo database shows some very were decomposed when found, obviously dead for a while, others fairly fresh. Some reports have stated that pair trawlers were operating in the area prior to the bodies being found.

A large number of marine wildlife is incidentally caught in commercial fishing nets every year. These carcasses are dumped at sea and not recorded. Woodlock said the reporting and recording of protected species bycatch is a requirement of the EU Habitats Directive, but it is not done at the moment in Ireland.

A recent report by wildlife charity WWF and Sky Ocean Rescue found that 345,000 seals and sea lions, are caught as bycatch by commercial fisheries worldwide, among hundreds of thousands of other marine wildlife. 

There is currently little independent monitoring of bycatch and no accurate measurement of the problem, the conservationists said.

They shoot seals don’t they? 

The fraught relationship between seals and fishermen has been an issue since the early 1980s, regularly resulting in calls for culls of the protected species.  

In 1982 a seal census was ordered by the government to determine if there should be a cull on the animals of the west coast, after complaints from fishermen that seals were damaging salmon stock. The announcement of the seal census was met with some backlash from environmentalists at the time, leading to the government backing down on its plans. 

The calls for culls continued in the years that followed, in one instance in 2014, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said the effect of the growing number of seals on the west coast on the fishing industry had reached the stage where a cull is needed. 

“I would be all for the protection of wildlife, such as seals,” he told TheJournal.ie at the time, “but this is affecting fishermen’s livelihoods”. 

Back in September, the Housing Minister distanced himself from a pilot scheme which would see seals shot with high-powered rifles from boats to protect fisherman’s catches.

The minister’s clarification came following a Dáil question by Healy-Rae, who asked O’Brien about what the government was doing to “address the seal population problem” in Kerry.

O’Brien responded by saying that five Section 42 applications have been made this year in relation to seals. Such applications allow for steps to be taken to stop protected wild animals from causing environmental damage.

The Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation said at the time, that there had been misinformed commentary after the story of the minister’s comments broke.

The group agreed the pilot scheme was “madness” but that managing the Irish seal population should be the same as any other wild animal and should be treated with the same seriousness.

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“The problem is that there are so many seals out there now. There are no natural predators for these and this population of animals is going unchecked. There’s going to be huge repercussions for this if it continues that way,” said IFO spokesperson Patrick Murphy. 

Calls for culls in recent years have also cited the issue of seals following ships and attacking nets, depleting catches before fishermen return to the harbour. Some fishermen have faced entire catches being rendered useless by seals.

The Irish Seal Sanctuary works with fishermen’s organisations in an attempt to resolve conflicts between fishermen and seals. Woodlock, who is also a member of the Sea Fishery Advisory Group, said the group is investigating sonar and other deterrents which could be employed by commercial fishermen to stop seals causing damage.

shutterstock_710717797 Source: Shutterstock/Stephen Power

Chair of the Irish Seal Sanctuary Brendan Price told TheJournal.ie the calls for culls over the last 30 years have never sought to address the real problems, such as biodiversity loss. 

“Very often, the argument that we cull deer is raised. Well, deer are herbivores with no real predators eating themselves out of their habitat, very often. Seals are top of the food chain predators, and their population is controlled by the food supply, not the other way around.

“So if you see lots of seals, basically you’re seeing lots of fish. It’s a good healthy sign that the environment is good. And then it’s a matter of just modifying your fishing techniques to be more selective and not be in continual conflict with the seals.

“If you fish up under the noses of the colonies on the Blaskets, you’re naturally going to get damage. So, it’s a matter of sharing out and finding more selective fishing techniques.”

In the meantime, the fishermen that are suffering damage need to be heard, he said, adding that the ISS support fishermen being compensated when seals or other marine life damage fish catches.  

“If they bring in a few boxes of monkfish with no tails, they should get their commercial value. It’s hard enough making a living there at the minute.” 

Seals are protected in Ireland under the Irish Wildlife Act, 1976 and The EU’s Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1972.

There are an estimated 300,000 grey seals globally, with British and Irish waters supporting 40% of the total population. Ireland is home to some 8,000 to 10,000, compared to 120,000 in the UK. 

“That’s fewer than African elephants,” said SRI’s Croce, “so even though our population is extremely small it’s still globally significant”. 

“There’s a lot of things that humans are doing to negatively impact biodiversity and whether or not there are seals in these waters fish stocks are going to continue to decline if those real issues are not addressed.

“We need to protect and preserve the environment so that fish stocks can recover for the benefit of both seals and fishermen.”

The ISR announced plans this week to plant 20,000 native trees – primarily along waterways and shorelines – to help protect wildlife and address the negative impacts of climate change. 

Croce said it has become increasingly apparent that the most effective way to help wildlife is by addressing the environmental threats that cause them to be rescued in the first place.

“Everything we do on land impacts the plants and animals around us, and planting native trees is a nature-based solution that simultaneously reverses some of the biggest threats facing seals in the wild: biodiversity loss, climate change and water pollution.”

  • With many species in decline, our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out if the Government is adequately protecting our natural world? Support this project here

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Adam Daly

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