Loop Head to Kenmare Area of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation
Size of the area: 6,705km²
The west coast of Ireland was identified as a high biodiversity ‘Area of Interest’ for potential Marine Protected Area designation, in our recent report ‘Revitalising Our Seas’.
For the full site synopsis and references please find the relevant pages of the report PDF here.
Why was this area identified as a potential Marine Protected Area?
Tralee and Dingle Bays are breeding areas for several threatened species of shark, ray and skate. This ‘Area of Interest’ for cetaceans, exhibits a high number of bottlenose dolphins in Brandon Bay and to a lesser extent Tralee Bay. It is used regularly by individual bottlenose dolphins from the adjacent Shannon Estuary Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The highest numbers of humpback whales are recorded in this area, 51% of the overall total number of individuals. The islands and archipelagos that skirt the peninsulas of Kerry are some of Ireland’s most prominent seabird breeding sites.
At the most westerly point of Europe, these striking nearshore islands annually accommodate aggregations of seabirds on an internationally significant scale, particularly for burrow-nesting seabird species such as Manx shearwater, puffin, and storm-petrel. By far the largest of Ireland’s six gannetries is located within this site (Little Skellig).
Recently Fair Seas visited communities across parts of Kerry that would be encompassed by this Marine Protected Area. We interviewed all sorts of people that make their living from and by the sea. We spoke to a wide range of people including fishermen, anglers, ecotourism operators and more. In October we hope to screen the film around Kerry and the rest of the county to continue the conversation of protecting our seas among all our coastal communities.
Here’s an infographic summarising the key elements of this Area of Interest.
Within this AOI lies the Bridges of Ross, not far from Loop Head in Clare, which is an important migration bottleneck, with almost 60,000 birds recorded during a three-year survey period. Heading south towards Tralee Bay are the Magharee Islands, a network of small rocky outcrops popular with breeding terns (Arctic tern and Sandwich tern). At the most westerly point of Europe can be found the Blasket Islands, with several colonies of international importance for Manx shearwater and European storm petrel, and several other noteworthy colonies of lesser black-backed gull, puffin, razorbill and fulmar.
Off the next peninsula to the south, Uíbh Ráthach as Gaeilge or Iveragh in English, are the Skellig Islands, which are of equal significance, providing ideal nesting habitat for internationally important colonies of northern gannet, European storm-petrel and puffin. With the last census estimating in excess of 35,000 breeding pairs of gannets, this colony represents 74% of the national breeding population.
The thousands of puffins on Skellig Michael (Great Skellig) and Puffin Island are an iconic sight for both domestic and international tourism. The largest puffin colony was previously the aptly named Puffin Island, with the Seabird 2000 census showing the island to be inhabited by over a quarter (26%) of Ireland’s estimated breeding population. It is also an internationally important colony for European storm-petrel. However, new data yet to be published suggests that recent estimates on Great Skellig may surpass the colony size of Puffin Island. The Critically Endangered Balearic shearwater, although scarce, has been observed around the Blasket and Skellig Islands in the past.
This Area of Interest covers several important inshore bays and estuaries, including ones that are already designated SACs or Special Areas of Conservation (SPAs), e.g. the Shannon Estuary, Tralee and Brandon Bays, Dingle Bay, the Blaskets, Valentia Island and Kenmare Bay. Proper management of these sites would already contribute substantially to the protection of habitats within them. That said, SACs and SPAs only afford protection to a small subset of listed habitats and species. An extension of these sites into one larger MPA would allow movement between core areas of species and their habitats and – crucially – protect some species that might not currently be afforded protection within existing SACs.
Particular species of interest outside the current SAC network is seagrass meadows in Dingle Bay, kelp forests all along the coastline and the high variation in seabed habitat types, e.g. circalittoral rock between Loop Head and the Blaskets and circalittoral fine sand in the Shannon Estuary and Dingle Bay.
Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras)
Sharks, skates and rays are not protected inside the current network of SACs. Angling records and egg case surveys have highlighted the area (Tralee Bay in particular) as one of the last remaining hotspots and breeding areas for several threatened elasmobranchs. A survey of sharks, skates and rays in north Kerry (Tralee, Brandon and Dingle Bays) was conducted by the Marine Institute in 2017- 2019. A total of 12 species were captured during the survey, of which three are listed as Critically Endangered (angel shark, blue skate and flapper skate), two are listed as Endangered (stingray, undulate ray) and a further three are Vulnerable (tope, cuckoo ray, spurdog).
The survey report notes that the waters off north Kerry are internationally important as they hold some of the last remaining refuges for angel shark and white skate. While no adult white skates were found during the Marine Institute survey, the report states that Varian et al. (2020) recorded live egg cases of white skate in Tralee Bay. Analysis of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group database and the ObSERVE survey data indicate high densities of basking sharks around the Blasket Islands. The Area of Interest has one of the highest levels of basking shark sightings in Ireland (21% of total sightings), with individual sightings reporting as many as 60 individuals present at one point.
Commercially exploited species
Whiting spawning grounds extend all along the south coast and up into Kenmare Bay. Whiting nursery habitat extends all along the southwest peninsulas and into Dingle Bay. Herring spawning grounds are more patchy, with grounds all around the Dingle Peninsula and a large spawning ground in the mouth of the River Shannon. Herring nursery grounds extend from Dingle Bay southwards to Bantry Bay. A haddock nursery ground is located west of the Dingle Peninsula. Cod nursery grounds are located all around the Irish coast.
Crayfish (Palinurus elephas) are globally classed as Vulnerable and declining. In the southwest of Ireland, crayfish populations have declined since the traditional pots were replaced by tangle nets in the 1970s. This type of fishing gear has a high bycatch rate of threatened sharks, skates and rays as well as seals, and is one of the main threats to the endangered elasmobranchs in this area. An ongoing project by the Marine Institute aims to improve the status of elasmobranchs and crayfish stocks by trialling the use of traps and creating a crayfish management plan with bycatch mitigation measures. The poor status of crayfish means it will greatly benefit from improved management of the area, which MPA designation could aid in.
Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises)
High species richness has been recorded in this area. Studies have shown that Brandon Bay, and to a lesser extent Tralee Bay, are used regularly by individual bottlenose dolphins from the adjacent Shannon Estuary SAC, which is designated because of the species. Of the 70 dolphins recognised individually between 2008 and 2016 in the area, 95% had been recorded as part of the Shannon dolphin population. High densities were also recorded off Ventry Harbour, with the highest recorded at Loop Head.
High densities of harbour porpoise were recorded within the established Blasket Islands SAC, with lower densities throughout the rest of the site, distribution more south of Dunmore Head. High densities of humpback whales north and south of the Blasket Islands have been recorded. Sightings occurred from April to November, with peak sightings in August.
High densities of minke whales were recorded within the site south of the Blasket Islands, present year-round with the exception of January. High densities of Risso’s dolphin have been recorded south of the Blasket Islands and between Puffin Island and the Skellig Islands. Sightings occurred from March to November, with peak sightings in June. There were lower densities of fin whales across the site with small clusters around the Blasket Islands. Sightings occurred from April to November, with peak sightings in August. Small numbers of killer whales have been recorded here with several sightings over the summer of 2022.
Fair Seas published the report Revitalising Our Seas in June 2022 and identified sixteen areas of interest for potential Marine Protected Area designation in Irish waters. The report aims to help kickstart the conversation around MPAs within the government and among stakeholders. MPAs can help to restore life in our seas to what they once were and can benefit coastal fisheries and local economies.
To read the full description of the Loop Head to Kenmare Area of Interest please click here to view the PDF version.
We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.
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