Thursday, 17 December 2020
Department of Housing, Planning, and Local Government
333. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government the requirements or communication his Department has made in respect of the use of sonar in Irish waters in view of the impact of sonar on certain cetaceans in particular and the protection Ireland is obliged to provide for such species under EU directives binding on Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44139/20]
334. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government the steps taken and considerations made in respect of limiting the impact on cetaceans in Irish waters from NATO exercises such as operation dynamic mongoose in the past three years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44140/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 333 and 334 together.
All cetaceans are protected under the EU’s Habitats Directive and Ireland is required to report to the Commission on their conservation status every six years. The most recent reports were published in 2019 and can be accessed on my Department's NPWS website:
Twenty-four species of cetacean have been recorded from Irish waters. Some of these species are common and widespread. Others (e.g. Blue whale, Sperm whale, beaked whales) show a preference for the deeper waters offshore and are rarely seen.
Ireland’s marine mammals have been the focus of considerable research efforts over the last three decades and the understanding of species occurrence, abundance and distribution has improved markedly in that time. Most recently the ObSERVE project, run jointly by my Department and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, mapped cetaceans through aerial and ship-based surveys over a three year period and across an extensive area of our off-shore waters. Discussions around further work in this regard are currently being finalised.
I share the Deputy's concerns around the impact on cetaceans in Irish waters from underwater noises and acoustic disturbance, including sonar. The hearing system of marine mammals is particularly susceptible to damage and the deep-diving beaked whale species are known to be especially vulnerable.
Underwater sound, for example seismic surveys, pile driving or chemical explosions, can cause significant disruption to the normal behaviour of marine mammal species and may lead to permanent or even lethal injury. In an early effort to address this issue, my Department, developed a "Code of Practice for the Protection of Marine Mammals during Acoustic Seafloor Surveys in Irish Waters" in August 2007.
In 2014, the original Code of Practice was updated and a new guidance document, which provides a detailed overview of the issues and relevant mitigation measures in respect of man-made underwater noise, was published. This document ["Guidance to Manage the Risk to Marine Mammals from Man-made Sound Sources in Irish Waters"] is used extensively by the maritime industries in Ireland. It can be downloaded from the NPWS website:
In the context of its observations on the Department of Defence draft Statement of Strategy earlier this year, my Department highlighted the potential for sonar technology to damage marine wildlife.
The use of sonar technology by naval vessels has the potential to disturb, displace and even kill cetaceans. However, Ireland is not a NATO member and the Naval Service does not currently employ sonar technology in its operations. With this in mind, I intend to raise the matter with my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Defence with a view to a coordinated approach across Departments to help meet Ireland’s obligations under the Habitats Directive and ensure adequate protection for marine mammals in our waters.