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Minister Canney Welcomes Ground Breaking Research into Ireland’s Offshore Habitats and Species

The Minister of State for Community Development, Natural Resources and Digital Development, Mr. Sean Canney T.D. on Friday, 23 November 2018 welcomed publication of the findings from the ObSERVE Programme, a government funded initiative, to enhance our knowledge and understanding of protected species and sensitive habitats offshore Ireland through high quality data collection.

The ObSERVE Programme is being delivered by the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment, in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. €2.7m has been invested by government in the programme to date.

On November 23rd, the ObSERVE team announced the findings of the twin ObSERVE Aerial and ObSERVE Acoustic projects, led by University College Cork and Galway Mayo Institute of Technology respectively, both of which began in the spring of 2015 and spanned three years of data collection and analysis. The projects surveyed large areas of the Atlantic Margin, Celtic and Irish seas.


Key Findings


  • Twenty species of cetacean (i.e., whales, dolphins & porpoises) were recorded, analysed and mapped with almost 2,200 sighting records over the two-year field study.
  • Cumulative abundance of 380 Sperm whales was found using acoustic detection and tracking methods.
  • Species such as the Beluga/White whale were found - a mainly Arctic species
  • Minke whales were the most frequently observed and abundant baleen whale species, numbering approximately 12,000 in summer and 5,000 in winter and there were significant sightings of Minke whale calves
  • Fin whales occurred in Irish waters both in summer and winter, the analysis showing the continental slope and nearby deep waters to be an important area for this species, possibly for feeding and/or migration.
  • Many sound recordings were made of rarely-seen beaked whales, which are deep-diving offshore species poorly known to science.
  • At least three species of beaked whales were recorded during the ObSERVE surveys, primarily in deep oceanic waters along the continental margin, the Porcupine and eastern Rockall Basins. The records collected during the aerial project were sufficient to provide the first estimates recorded for this study area of 2,500 individuals in summer and 4,000 in winter.
  • Endangered Blue whales could be detected underwater up to 115-200km away and strong seasonal patterns in their sounds were noted and described.


  • Considerable variation was found in the distribution, abundance and movements of dolphin species.
  • Bottlenose dolphins were much more abundant during the winter than the summer, with densities in the second winter (2016-17) being among the highest ever recorded.

Overall the ObSERVE Programme highlights the importance of Ireland's Atlantic Margin for many whale and dolphin species.



  • Aerial surveys highlight the importance of the Atlantic Margin for seabirds with almost half a million seabirds located within the study area during both summer and winter, with bird densities highest in coastal areas. 10,000 sightings of seabirds were recorded, representing 24 species.
  • The Western Irish Sea is shown to be of major importance for seabirds. 6,687 km of fine-scale aerial surveys were carried out in this area in 2016. They estimated 100,000 birds present in summer, 90,000 in winter, with migrating seabirds boosting these estimates to 300,000 in the autumn.
  • White-tailed Tropicbirds were found during ObSERVE Aerial, a species usually seen in the tropics.

Welcoming the findings, Minister of State for Community Development, Natural Resources and Digital Development, Sean Canney T.D., said:

"The ObSERVE programme, shows how important it is that government keeps investing in research into our marine environment. The information gathered by the ObSERVE Programme has significantly improved our knowledge of the environment, offshore Ireland, and will help to point the way forward for future regulation and sustainable development in tandem with advancing the conservation of protected species".

Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD said:

"The ObSERVE Programme is important in advancing our knowledge and protection of Ireland's offshore environment, and will be invaluable to conservation authorities responsible for the protection of marine biodiversity".

Dr Simon Berrow, GMIT and Dr Joanne O'Brien, GMIT (ObSERVE Acoustic) said:

"The innovative ObSERVE project has provided a unique insight into the distribution and abundance of cetaceans in the offshore waters of Ireland. By combining a range of aerial to acoustic techniques it has not only provided an invaluable new dataset for abundant and widespread species but has provided the first insights into rare and illusive species that spend nearly their entire life underwater at great depths.

Through collaboration with international experts the ObSERVE project has not only built research capacity in Ireland but has established Ireland as a world leader in the proper environmental management of our offshore resources.

The results of the ObSERVE project provide robust data to inform not only managers of our offshore resources but also to inform our marine conservation agencies on their obligations. This will ensure ObSERVE will be used for a wide range of issues and stimulate further use of this data".  

Dr Mark Jessopp UCC (ObSERVE Aerial) commented:

"The ObSERVE aerial programme was particularly ambitious and logistically challenging, but has provided essential information on the distribution of cetaceans in summer and winter over two consecutive years.  In addition, it has provided essential information on seabirds during both the summer breeding and overwintering periods. This is the first time we have been able to get robust estimates of cetacean abundance in winter and seabird abundance at sea essential to inform management and conservation of populations".

The ObSERVE Programme is contributing vital information on the occurrence, distribution and density of sensitive species within key offshore areas. This and future information generated under the programme will provide robust environmental baseline data and confidence to the regulatory regime in assessing offshore activities including oil & gas exploration, cables and offshore wind, and to conservation authorities responsible for the protection of marine biodiversity.

ObSERVE Programme reports and datasets are being made available to all interested parties through the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment's website and, in addition, through the National Biodiversity Data Centre which provides an online platform for mapping Ireland's biodiversity.


Note for editors

The ObSERVE Acoustic project was carried out by an international consortium led by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology with partners the Marine Institute, JASCO Applied Sciences, SMRU Consulting and the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group.

ObSERVE Acoustic was designed to provide scientific information on cetaceans, based specifically on the underwater sounds that they produce. This used both static underwater listening devices specially designed to withstand extreme pressures in the deep ocean, and towed hydrophone systems deployed from Ireland's Celtic Voyager and other vessels. Together these methods tapped into the array of underwater sounds made by more than a dozen species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. In total 1,657 days with a total of nearly 3.8 million echolocation clicks and 375,000 tonal whistles made by cetaceans was captured by static recorders. Three mobile surveys were carried out over a total survey length of 7,000 km, recording as many as 24 million candidate clicks and involving 1,322 cetacean encounters. This has yielded new insights regarding the occurrence, distribution, abundance and migration habits of important species that are rarely seen at the sea surface.

The ObSERVE Aerial project was carried out by an international consortium led by University College Cork with international partners IMARES, Alnilam and Aerosotravia.

ObSERVE Aerial used a team of trained observers flying over the sea in a specially equipped aeroplane, covering the majority of Ireland's Exclusive Economic Zone. They travelled along survey lines, to record the occurrence, distribution and numbers of whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds, sharks and sea turtles. A total survey length of 37,097 km was covered and this has delivered vital information on the occurrence, distribution and density of sensitive species within key offshore areas. 

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