The Marine Research Unit conducts research to facilitate the designation of areas to protect marine habitats and species, management of protected marine habitats and species, and implementation of Ireland’s national and international biodiversity obligations and commitments. Major research projects or initiatives that directly contribute to the protection and/or management of protected habitats or species in Ireland are also financially supported through contributions to national/international research initiatives or more directly through postgraduate funding.
Between 2005 and 2010 surveys of sensitive biological communities (e.g. seagrass, maërl, etc) were undertaken. Previous reports were reviewed to focus the efforts of a team of surveyors who undertook intensive dive transect sampling to map community distribution, extent and biological composition.
Between 2009 and 2012, an intensive national programme of work to carry out benthic surveys of approximately 100 marine Natura 2000 sites commenced in partnership with the Marine Institute. These surveys mapped the distribution and extent of intertidal and subtidal, benthic communities based on analysis of physical and biological data.
In addition in 2012, NPWS commissioned a survey of the Codling Bank to investigate the composition of this area of the Irish Sea.
|Photo: Diver surveying underwater seagrass beds||Photo: Clew Bay Maërl Bed|
NPWS is currently funding a scheme for the recording of standardised scientific data from cetaceans that strand around the Irish coastline. The scheme operated by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group employs a countrywide network of trained volunteers who may be placed to visit stranded carcasses and ultimately relay information on stranded cetaceans to a central co-ordinator.
A land-based monitoring programme for cetaceans is under way at eight prominent locations around the Irish coast. Using experienced observers and a rigorous data collection protocol, sighting records are being collected and validated from cetacean species encountered during monthly watches at these locations.
A set of regional survey blocks lying approximately 6-12 nautical miles off the coast are being surveyed using dedicated line-transect survey methods. Targeting the summer months, which coincide with the breeding season for several species and improved sea conditions, a standardised survey design is used to facilitate density/abundance estimation and data comparison.
Surveys of sites designated for Annex II cetacean species (i.e., Bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus and Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena) are continuing, the most recent of which was a 2010 dolphin population survey within the Lower River Shannon SAC (see Marine Reports). Ongoing monitoring objectives include density/abundance estimation, investigation of ecological parameters (e.g., breeding occurrence, behaviour, habitat use) and interactions with human activities within the sites.
NPWS is currently co-funding a PhD project at University College Cork investigating the population ecology of Bottlenose dolphins in the west of Ireland. The overall aim of the project is to gain a detailed insight into the population dynamics and ecology of a large, genetically distinct dolphin community that inhabits a number of key locations in the Conamara-Mayo area and possibly ranges further afield.
NPWS continues to provide support to government partners in relation to the interactions between cetaceans and human activities.
Since 2009, under a national monitoring programme for Annex II seal populations (i.e., Grey seal Halichoerus grypus and Harbour seal Phoca vitulina), NPWS has been conducting surveys of all the major Grey seal breeding colonies in Ireland, broken into three regions: (1) East; (2) Southwest-West; (3) West-Northwest. Each regional survey, which takes place in September-November, is designed to estimate annual pup production and thereby all-age population size around the coast. Regular regional estimates will then be combined to deliver national population assessments.
In relation to Harbour seals, a twin-track approach targeting the annual moult season for Harbour seals (August-September approx.) is being pursued. The moult season is when the highest numbers of seals gather ashore. Survey work consists of the following components: (1) a national aerial thermal imaging survey within the 6-year Habitats Directive reporting cycle, in order to produce an updated minimum estimate of the national population size and (2) annual monitoring on the ground by NPWS regional staff at key regional haul-out sites in order to deliver recurrent data on approximately 40-50% of the national population.
NPWS also continues to provide support to its government partners in relation to the interactions between seals and human activities.
Using the habitat and species survey data, substantial work is ongoing concerning the setting of conservation objectives for all marine Natura 2000 sites.
Work is also under way in the Marine Unit for Ireland’s reporting on the conservation status of all listed habitats and species occurring in Irish waters under Article 17 of the EC Habitats Directive. This 6-yearly exercise involves reporting to the Commission on each habitat under the headings of Range, Area, Structure and Function and Future Prospects and for each species under the headings of Range, Population, Habitat and Future Prospects.
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