Seal Rescue Ireland’s innovative way to remove plastics from the sea is a step-up in their conservancy work, writes Amy Lewis
From a corner of north Wexford, a team of dedicated environmentalists are working towards, quite literally, building a better future for our planet and its inhabitants.
As resident volunteers at Seal Rescue Ireland — a registered charity established to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick, injured and orphaned seal pups — they’ve seen first-hand the effects that human activity is having on marine life. The threat of plastic pollution, famously highlighted in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series, is something to which Irish common and grey seals are not immune.
Such threats and what we can do to prevent them is something the team are keen to highlight to visitors at their rescue and rehabilitation centre in Courtown, Wexford. During my own visit, Seal Rescue Ireland Executive Director Melanie Croce tells me the story of a grey seal pup and former centre resident named Karma.
“Karma looked like she was in good condition. She was nice and fat with no visible injuries but she had some strange behaviours. In the end, she passed away.”
A necropsy at UCD’s School of Veterinary Medicine generated a stark conclusion. What had cost Karma her life was an item so commonplace, disposable and harmless to humans: a single crisp packet.
“As it turns out, she had a crisp packet blocking her intestines,” explains Melanie, pointing out how the reflective surface of a crisp packet can mimic that of a fish. “Seals are opportunistic feeders. They’ll eat anything they can get their teeth on, whether it’s crab, squid or fish. Now that there’s more plastic in their environment, they’re mistaking it for food and eating it.” Similarly to all soft plastics, crisp packets are not recyclable in Ireland. Even when disposed of correctly, they can easily get swept out into the ocean and cause harm to marine life, says Melanie.
“The best thing we can do is cut down our use of plastics,” she says.
Using your purchasing power to support markets that don’t use unnecessary packaging is important as we try to work towards a better environment.
Until we further develop novel eco-friendly alternatives, non-biodegradable single-use plastics will still exist. However, Seal Rescue Ireland has adopted an innovative way to put unavoidable plastics to good use. Known as Ecobricks, this simple building material consists of large plastic bottles which have been tightly packed with soft plastics.
“Firstly, making Ecobricks stops the plastic from going out into the environment. Secondly, it is upcycling it into something useful and finally, it makes you very aware of every single piece of non-biodegradable piece of plastic you will use because you have to stuff it into a brick,” says Melanie, stressing that the Ecobrick is not their own invention.
To date, these surprisingly heavy “bricks” have been used by the team to make sturdy furniture such as stools. Looking into the future, they also hope to use them to make benches and as the building blocks of a second rescue facility in Ireland.
To do so, they will utilise any plastic collected from their volunteer houses nearby, where between 15 and 20 volunteers reside while working at the centre. Additionally, they’re accepting Ecobricks from members of the public keen to put their waste to good use. In order to be deemed acceptable, these bricks must be made from 1.7 or two-litre plastic bottles densely packed with as much clean, soft plastic as they can hold. Water bottles will not be accepted.
“You have to make sure you get rid of all of the open spaces because they will compromise the integrity of the brick,” says Melanie.
Seal Rescue Ireland hope to eventually run public workshops on Ecobrick making. In the meantime, there are various tutorials and videos available online.
Entanglement in discarded fishing line, which cuts into skin and blubber as they grow, is another major threat to pups. Poor water quality from pollution and raw sewage discharge is also problematic, as are dog attacks.
Extreme weather conditions are placing additional pressures on seals, particularly during breeding season. Vulnerable pups resting on the shore are knocked against rocks, separated from their mother or drowned during heavy storms.
Additionally, depleting fish stocks are forcing seals worldwide to travel further to find food. As a result, they often don’t have the energy to provide pups with the fat-rich milk they require and may abandon them.
Well-intentioned humans can also cause harm. Although pups rest on land, bypassers may mistake it for being ill or orphaned and approach it. Watching mothers may abandon the pup as a result.
“We advise people to stay two hundred metres away. If you think it needs help, call our rescue hotline number and don’t try to take matters into your own hands,” says Melanie.
All of these threats and how to minimise them are communicated to schoolchildren in Seal Rescue Ireland’s Marine Conservation Roadshows, as well as during school tours to the centre.
“Kids are amazing and absorb everything,” says Melanie. “If we can get them to care about this, then future world leaders will care about this.” Seal Rescue Ireland also runs daily public tours and facilitates corporate days at the centre.
The organisation currently has 800 trained volunteers around the country, who are ready to assist if a seal is in peril. This growing network have been vital in assisting with the increasing number of seal pups requiring rescuing. Indeed, intakes are rapidly rising, a trend Melanie says is largely due to weather conditions. In 2013, the centre took in 62 pups compared to a record 145 last year.
Through working with everyone to create a safer marine environment, they hope to minimise the number of seal casualties.
“We’re in the business of wanting to put ourselves out of business. We are rehabbing seals but if we can educate people and keep the marine environment safe and sustainable, there are fewer seals that need to come in,” says Melanie.
Seal Rescue Ireland’s Centre is open to the public daily.
Seal Rescue Ireland operate a 24/7 rescue hotline on 087 195 5393.
(First published in the Irish Examiner on November 12 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/seal-rescue-irelands-plan-to-turn-the-tide-on-plastic-pollution-884672.html)