The ocean is two-thirds of the earth, sequesters more carbon than the rainforests, and if we don’t protect it now, there’s no way back to a healthy planet. We hear from the people fighting to save our marine wildlife, stop sea levels rising and put an end to ‘plastic soup’
When it comes to sheer size and variety of marine life, it’s hard to beat Ireland. In fact, Ireland is technically one of the largest countries in Europe when you factor in seabed territory — some 880,000 square kilometres in all, and with over 3,000 kilometres of coastline.
Living in our waters are more than 24 species of whales and dolphins, 35 species of sharks, 24 species of seabirds and over 250 species of fish and invertebrates. And they’re all in danger as a consequence of climate change and ocean pollution. Some of the damage is now irreversible, with plastic pollution in particular being a chief culprit, but there are a new breed of Irish people doing their best to minimise the damage. Weekend spoke to five of them.
On the face of it, it’s not obvious why the health of the green sea turtle is something anyone other than, say, other green sea turtles should be concerned about. They live mostly in the Caribbean and near Australia, and are known for travelling enormous distances in the ocean.
But one Irish marine conservationist has made monitoring this breed of turtle his life’s work, and with good reason — because it turns out you can tell a lot about the overall condition of the oceans from the health of the animals that live in them.
“The green sea turtle is a canary-in-the-coalmine species, and its health can be used as a barometer of the general health of the oceans. In particular, I study the cancerous tumours that we are increasingly seeing on these turtles, and we know that they only appear when they live in degraded habitats,” says David Duffy, assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience. “When they live in pristine areas, they don’t get them.”
Duffy grew up in Dublin and comes from a long line of fishermen and lifeboat crew. He studied zoology in Trinity College and went on to specialise in marine invertebrates, before ending up in Florida teaching and studying the life cycle of turtles and the effects of climate change on the species.
“It’s true that most of us live our entire lives without ever really having to think about the seas or the effect they have on the planet, but it’s not something we should be taking for granted. For example, the oceans sequester more carbon in any given year than all of the rainforests on earth combined,” he says.
“So even from a purely selfish point of view, we have to be really careful what we do to the marine environment. Remember, we’re in a climate-change crisis and yet we’re continuing to destroy the sea, including the fish and mammals that live in it, degrading their habitats and storing up additional problems for ourselves.”
While there might not initially seem to be a link between the green sea turtles in the ocean near Florida and the day-to-day life of people in Ireland, Duffy says there is a connection.
“Turtles are a barometer species, and through them we can see the extent of climate change around the world. If that crisis isn’t halted, we will see the level of ice water melting from the poles increase, which will in turn increase sea levels. Most Irish cities are coastal, so Dublin and Galway will be in trouble, and there are very few cities that won’t be affected,” he says.
“We’re already seeing more extreme weather events around the world and those are very tightly linked to our oceans. As the earth warms, Ireland will actually become a lot colder because the Gulf Stream will be impacted. Without that, we’d be in trouble.”
Duffy points out that Ireland is at the same latitude on the globe as Canada but enjoys a much more temperate climate, largely because of the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
“If you look at Canada, which is at exactly the same level of latitude as us, every year the oceans freeze. The reason Ireland is so temperate and nice to live in is because we have this warm water that keeps us nice and toasty, but that stream is already showing signs of degradation. As more of this cold Arctic water is dumped into the ocean, it’s going to change that current and the warm water won’t reach us anymore,” says Duffy. “If that happens, we’re in serious trouble.”
Despite being only 15, Florence Donnelly is something of an eco-celebrity as a consequence of her work promoting beach cleaning. She regularly organises clean-ups near her home in south Dublin, and has started guiding others around the country who are making similar efforts to improve the environment.
It was while on a family holiday to Thailand when she was just eight that she first became aware of the damage people were doing to the environment. Out kayaking with her parents, she was appalled by the amount of rubbish in the sea and started collecting it to dispose of properly. Back at home the habit continued, and pretty soon she was collecting friends and neighbours keen to help out.
“When we got home from Thailand and were walking on the beaches here, I started to notice how dirty they were and so we started cleaning them. I’ve been doing that for seven years now. We organise beach-cleaning sessions for the public once a month during the winter and once a week during the summer, but I do it by myself more regularly all year,” she says.
Today, through her website, flossieandthebeachcleaners.com, she encourages people to meet up and keep their local beaches free of plastics and other rubbish. “I find beach cleaning extremely relaxing and a rewarding thing to do, so I’d encourage everyone to do it, but because I’m in school I don’t get out as much as I’d like.”
Donnelly, her family and her friends regularly clean the beaches at Sandycove, Killiney and Dún Laoghaire, but she says that’s just because they happen to be near to where she lives. Anyone can clean any beach at any time.
“It doesn’t really matter — any beach will do. When we go out, my mum helps, and sometimes my friends help as well. We put up notices on Facebook and Twitter and people come along. It’s getting easier as time goes on to organise groups of people all around the country,” she says.
“It’s important to keep the beaches clean because if you don’t, rubbish pollutes the water and kills the marine life. Any animal that eats plastic will probably choke on it, and everything the marine life is suffering with will actually affect us as well in future. If we don’t look after them, it’ll happen to us.”
Over the years, Donnelly has found everything from old car batteries to bridal bouquets to used needles on the beach.
“Before Covid, it was almost fashionable to be a young activist, and people like Greta Thunberg did a huge amount to make young people realise that they could actually make a difference. But sadly Covid has sucked some of the wind out of the sails of that,” she says.
“The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have obviously taken up a lot more of people’s attentions, but we have to remember that climate change is still with us and won’t go away.”
When it comes to foraging seaweed and sea vegetables, knowing where to find good-quality seawater and low levels of pollution is key. The reason? Plants that grow in the sea often absorb pollutants, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up eating them.
“Seaweed absorbs its nutrients from the seawater around it, a bit like shellfish, so if there are toxins in the water, biological or chemical, those will be absorbed by the seaweed,” says Marie Power, a seaweed expert who educates people about maritime ecology and the importance of sustainability.
“In fact, seaweed is capable of breaking down heavy metals into harmless compounds but, obviously, you don’t want to eat it while that process is going on.”
Power started out as a management consultant, but in 2007 started foraging for seaweed on the local beaches in Waterford, and then decided that she’d rather follow her interests into nature. Today, she leads guided tours introducing people to seaweed and wild foods in general, as well as teaching them how to prepare and eat them.
“Water quality is so important, and my hope is that once people perceive more value in seaweed, then they’ll be more motivated to protect it and look after it. You have to see foraging in its entirety, as part of a whole ecology. You don’t take all of a plant, for example — you just cut off what you need and make sure to leave enough for it to regenerate, and if you move a rock, you put it back,” she says. “At the end of a session, we do a two-minute beach clean if it’s needed. It’s all about consciousness-raising.”
Through her website at theseagardener.com, Power organises guided tours, foraging trips and cooking sessions, all designed to highlight the wealth and abundance of the sea.
“I started out giving guided foraging tours and then we’d cook up something on the beach, and over time they became very popular. I found that by talking about food and eating, you can educate people about ecology at the same time, because everyone likes to eat,” she says.
“But when you get people out to the water’s edge, then they become fascinated by the connection between the water, the animals living in it, the seaweed growing in it and why it’s all interconnected. For example, you can’t deplete the seaweed stocks the same way we have the fish stocks, because a whole ecosystem depends on it.”
On any given day on any beach or stretch of coastline in Ireland, you can find plastic washed up on the shore. For most people this isn’t that big a deal, but for Sinead McCoy, programme manager for Clean Coasts, it’s a serious issue that we as a nation simply aren’t doing enough to tackle.
“Sea pollution and plastics in the sea in particular are problems that are getting worse and worse every year. Right now, there are huge amounts of what’s called plastic soup out there, just tonnes and tonnes of manmade plastic floating around, not just on top of the ocean but all the way down to the sea floor as well,” she says. “This plastic soup in the centre of the Atlantic and in the other oceans is a huge problem, because it seriously damages the environment, and wildlife just can’t survive in it.”
Clean Coasts is a body that organises hundreds of beach-cleaning sessions each year, as well as running promotional competitions and events to raise awareness of the importance of keeping the seaside clean.
“I think that there’s a lot we can do and this is a reversible problem. We have to protect our coastlines but I have seen badly polluted beaches turned around, and of course it takes work to maintain that. There’s a huge amount of plastic in the ocean that gets washed up every day and that can be disheartening for groups of beach cleaners,” says McCoy.
“But taking part in beach cleans changes people’s behaviour going forward. Those who go out and do these things are more inclined to be aware of the problems that plastics create, and so they reduce their own plastic consumption and spread that message around them.”
Her wish is that Ireland should be a loud and prominent voice in the world, calling out those who aren’t doing their bit to help fix this issue.
“The ocean is two-thirds of our planet and if we don’t take care of it, we’re in serious trouble. It’s something that’s not taken seriously enough.”
For Ceara Carney, a Dublin-based actor, environmental activist and podcaster, the time for talking politely about climate change and the oceans is over. Carney is a volunteer with Extinction Rebellion and someone who cares deeply about Ireland’s marine wildlife.
“We’ve spent years signing petitions and asking politely for change, but I think we’re at the stage now where the climate crisis looms as large as ever and action is urgently needed. Sometimes getting things done requires more drastic action, like civil disobedience and holding actual protests,” she says.
Last year, Carney took part in an organised protest at the Dáil in which a mocked-up fishing trawler was dragged through the capital city by protesters dressed in black and wearing skeletal masks. The group was calling for the Government to increase the size of marine-protected areas in the Irish Sea — areas where fishing isn’t allowed and conservation is prioritised. The group also wants an end to bottom trawling, in which fishing nets are dragged across the surface of the sea floor, destroying habitats as they pass.
“Protests and raising awareness are really important for injecting the issue of sea conservation into the media and into the news. There is a lack of awareness out there of just how big the problems are, and we’re determined to change that,” she says.
According to Carney, Ireland is uniquely well positioned to take a lead in this area because we are an island with not just thousands of kilometres of coastline but we also control of a large chunk of the Atlantic.
“We have a lot more ocean than many other countries and yet only 2.5pc of that is set aside for conservation. We’d like to see it set to something more like 30pc. We have an absolutely stunning array of wildlife out there — whales and seals and dolphins and more — but they’re out of sight and out of mind, and that’s a problem,” she says.
“If people don’t see them and don’t know about them, then they don’t really care or get why it’s important to fix the problems. That’s why I’d love to see more artists and videographers get involved — people with the skills to create striking visual images and films, and to make protests stand out and get attention.”
Ceara Carney’s podcast on living sustainably can be found at bookofleavespodcast.com