Military exercises planned by the Russian navy 150 miles off the south-west coast of Ireland next month raise the very real prospect of whales and dolphins washing up dead on Irish beaches, if active sonar are involved.
This part of the ocean is known to be important for marine mammals, and particularly for vulnerable beaked whales, and any military activity involving powerful underwater sonar and explosions could result in many whales and dolphins stranding on the shoreline.
Noise pollution threatens whale and dolphin populations, interrupting their normal behaviour, driving them away from areas important to their survival, and at worst injuring or sometimes even causing their deaths. For whales and dolphins, ‘listening’ is as important as ‘seeing’ is for humans – they hunt, navigate, communicate using sound.
The world's largest beaked whale mass stranding occurred on the Irish and Scottish coasts in 2018, consisting of more than 100 Cuvier's beaked whales, concurrent with military exercising, and this alone may have been enough to have population-level impacts on local beaked whale populations. Militaries should not be exercising in important marine habitats.
In 2013, a scientific analysis of the UK’s largest common dolphin stranding off the coast of Cornwall stated that the most probable cause of the event were naval exercises in the area at the time.
The threat of this exercise going ahead is a reminder of the normally invisible destruction being wreaked on the ocean by irresponsible navies, who are not demonstrating the appropriate level of Duty of Care that is required.. In addition to their intrinsic right to being, the tragedy for humanity is that it is these very whales, and the marine ecosystems they enrich, that need to thrive if we have any hope of surviving the unfolding climate and ecological emergency.
The exercise, which could take place in early February, are far from Russia's operating bases and normal training areas, and suggest the area has been chosen for political or strategic reasons. The Republic of Ireland's defence minister, Simon Coveney, has said the Russian naval exercise was ‘not welcome’, but the country had no power to stop it.
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