Record Levels of Dead Common Dolphins Continue to Strand On Irish Coast. UPDATED 11 March

Updated 11 March 2016

Recorded deaths of common dolphins on the west coast of Ireland between 1 January and today’s date (11 March) in 2016 have reached a new record high, with 36 confirmed so far (excluding others where species wasn’t confirmed due to body condition which were simply recorded as ‘dolphin species’). The previous high for this period in 2013 was 32. By comparison, 10 years ago, in 2006, IWDG had received a total of 9 records of dead common dolphins by 11 March. Stranded common dolphins are turning up along the western seaboard, anywhere from Donegal down to Cork. IWDG do not consider this increase is due to increased recorder coverage as our stranding network has been quite stable over the last 10 years.

There has been much interest both in ‘traditional’ media (newspapers, radio etc.) and in social media in the results presented by the IWDG showing the large increase in reported strandings (and we continue to point out that these number may be only a small percentage of actual common dolphin deaths) but what now? Based on other years, it is difficult not to be somewhat cynical and think that the number stranding will ease off, attention will focus elsewhere and we’ll be back here with the same story in 2017. This is simply not acceptable and action must be taken.

There is little doubt that pelagic trawling is at least partly responsible for the increase in deaths of common dolphins and even as I write, some of the biggest factory trawlers in the world are fishing west of Ireland. So who will take responsibility for monitoring these vessels? BIM reports sent to Europe under the Bycatch Regulation (which requires member states to monitor certain fisheries), suggest a minimal bycatch of cetaceans from pelagic trawling, something that our data strongly disagrees with, but BIM observer trials only extends to Irish registered vessels. It seems cruelly ironic that in the 25th anniversary year of Irish waters being designated a ‘Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary’, that we should see the worst record of common dolphin deaths ever recorded. Also, common dolphins are protected under Article IV of the Habitats Directive which requires “a system to monitor incidental capture and killing of these animals”.

Now, more than ever, from an ethical, moral and legal point of view, steps must be taken to put such a system in place at the earliest opportunity (and at very least prior to January 2017) and IWDG wish to see consultation from all relevant government bodies (NPWS, Department of Marine, Food and the Marine etc) and stakeholders to ensure progress in this area.

Updated 9 March 2016

According to reports in todays Irish Examiner, Gerard van Balsfoort, spokesman for Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association (PFA) — which represents the interests of nine European pelagic freezer-trawler companies — said they were open to discussing measures which would help to reduce the accidental catching of dolphins. He clarified that he said that all vessel owners must be involved in such discussions, be they freezer-trawlers or smaller boats.

IWDG welcome this initiative and are happy to participate in any discussions.

This morning 16 factory ships and 8 trawlers including the Annelies Ilena, the largest trawler in the world, were fishing about 150km west of Dingle, Co Kerry close together, presumably on mackerel. Meanwhile more common dolphins continue to strand with at least two today, one in Clare and one in Galway.

Updated 6 March 2016

The IWDG have called on the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, through the National Parks and Wildlife Service to make a formal response to these strandings. The IWDG consider that failure to respond adequately to this issue, which at the very least should be to arrange an independent observer scheme on foreign pelagic vessels fishing in Irish waters during the winter period (December-February) is surely a failure to provide "strict protection" to Annex IV group of species which includes all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoise)? Although observer studies have been carried out on some Irish pelagic vessels since 2011, more are required especially during this winter fishery.

A second response expected by the IWDG is for the DAHG to arrange full post-mortem examination of common dolphins stranded during this period in December 2016 February 2017 including examination of life-history characteristics (age, gender, maturity etc) to assess the impact of this mortality and provide insights into their ecology such as diet, to try and understand these interactions for informing mitigation measures. The IWDG have shown through analysis of IWDG stranding records that common dolphin mortality has being increasing since 2011 and have identified a significant fisheries interaction two winters ago in 2013.

Even without this additional information, minigation measures to reduce bycatch of dolphins should be required for all pelagic vessels fishing in Irish waters.

The IWDG looks forward to an official response from DAHG through the NPWS with plans in place for next winter.

Updated 1 March 2016

Now that we have come to the end of February, we can now confirm that the reported strandings of common dolphins during January and February 2016 are the second highest recorded on the IWDG Strandings Database with 28 confirmed so far. The highest recorded total for common dolphins during these two months was in 2013 when 31 were recorded,

Many of the dolphins found during 2016, particularly those washed up in counties Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, showed obvious signs of being caught in fishing nets. This is similar to 2013 when some of those stranded on the northwest coasts were recovered for post-mortem examination which confirmed that they had drowned, probably as a result of being bycaught in pelagic trawl fisheries at a time when so-called 'supertrawlers' were fishing off the north west coast.

This trend of a huge increase in strandings of common dolphins on the northwest coast during January and February is ongoing since 2011. While there is no proof of which vessels were involved, the strandings coincide with periods when large (c.100m) foreign registered freezer trawlers are fishing in Irish offshore waters. Smaller vessels targetting mackerel are also present but large bycatch events are probably less likely.

While small numbers of stranded dolphins showing signs of bycatch have been occasionally recorded from around the coast previously, we have never seen anything like the scale of the now apparently annual carnage off our northwest coast – it is important to remember that the number of bycaught dolphins that actually get washed ashore and recorded as stranded may be only a small percentage of the actual number of dead animals. IWDG believe it is imperative that the Irish goverbnment must insisit that independent observers are placed on these large vessels to monitor the species and number of bycaught animals with a view to introducing mitigation measures to reduce the impact on non-target species from both a conservation and welfare point of view.

Common dolphin strandings 1 Jan to 28 Feb by year
YEAR 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
NUMBER OF STRANDINGS 1 7 7 9 7 10 3 3 2 18 17 31 23 22 28


23 February 2016

The IWDG Strandings Database now contains almost 3,200 records (predominantly of cetaceans but also including turtles and basking sharks), dating all the way back to 1753. While historical records going back so far are useful, it is really since the year 2000 that strandings have been reported and recorded in a more consistent fashion with IWDG promoting recording through talks etc, many of which were conducted under the auspices of ISCOPE – the Irish Scheme for Cetacean Observation and Public Education. The usefulness of a long term, consistent stranding scheme is now proving itself in looking at trends over several years and flagging unusual mortality events.

If we look at the period of time from 1 January to 21 February since 2000, a worrying and consistent trend has developed. Up to and including 2010, the average number of strandings recorded per year for these weeks was 19.8 with a high of 28 in 2005 and a low of 4 in 2000. If we look at the same period in the years 2011 to 2016 (inclusive), the average number of strandings more than doubles to just over 42 with a high of 55 in 2013 and a 'low' of 27 in 2011. 2016 has the second highest figure with 47 received so far.


There is no doubt that the big losers here are common dolphins. If we look at the same time frame again, the average number from 1 January to 21 February was 4.5 per year between 2000 and 2010 (with a high of 10 in 2007 and a low of 0 in 2002) but for the same period 2011 to 2016 there has been a massive fourfold increase to an average of just under 20 with a high of 29 in 2013 and a 'low' of 14 in 2012.

A number of strandings show obvious signs of being bycaught in fishing net – entanglement, rope on tails, cuts to body cavity, fins etc and post mortem results of stranded common dolphins in Mayo in early 2013 confirmed that their deaths were caused by drowning in fishing nets. Bycatch of cetaceans is an ongoing problem for cetaceans on a worldwide scale and now appears to be an increasing problem in Irish waters. At the time of the high number of common dolphin strandings in Mayo in 2013, some of the worlds largest supertrawlers were fishing waters west and north of Mayo and these huge vessels appear to fish Irish waters regularly during the winter recently.

The number of recorded strandings is only a proportion of actual strandings (many not reaching shore) and is therefore having an unknown effect on common dolphin populations in Irish waters. IWDG consider that if these huge vessels are to be allowed fish in Irish waters, full mitigation measures need to be applied to monitor and reduce the effects on cetaceans, especially common dolphins.


Mick O'Connell

IWDG Strandings Officer