Irish Examiner: Local lobbyists swimming against political tide

The Irish Examiner writes today:

Local lobbyists swimming against political tide

By Claire O’Sullivan

MONDAY, MARCH 12, 2012

TRADITIONAL fishermen, anglers and sailors, bed and breakfast-owners, hoteliers, harbour commissioners and environmentalists along with peninsula residents — it’s a disparate bunch.

But that’s a cross-section of the support lining up alongside a Save Bantry Bay lobby group in West Cork.

Save Bantry Bay was formed to fight plans by Marine Harvest to build a €3.5m organic salmon fish farm off Shot Head at Adrigole on the Beara Peninsula.

The company, which already has a salmon fish farm eight kilometres away at Roancarrig, says the farm will create six jobs during installation and two more when operational. It also says it will solidify existing employment in the South-West, where up to 38 people work for the multinational in Bantry and Kenmare Bay.

However, members of the local community — many of whom stress they are not opposed to all aquaculture — strongly oppose the project.

They’re shouting “enough is enough” and say Bantry Bay’s fishing, beauty and water quality, as well as the salmon population of the five rivers flowing into the bay, will suffer if the minister for the marine Simon Coveney grants the appropriate foreshore and aquaculture licences.

Already, there are two mussel farms in Bantry Bay, in addition to two other salmon farms.

Marine Harvest’s Shot Head licence application is now with the department, with the public consultation process over, but if the project is granted a draft licence — and Mr Coveney has never hidden his support for the aquaculture industry — it will be appealed by the local community.

Last year, Alec O’Donovan retired as Bantry Bay’s assistant harbour master. A commercial marine pilot, he has also fished the rivers around Bantry for over 40 years and as secretary of the Bantry Salmon and Trout Anglers, he is deeply concerned that another salmon fish farm could render the bay as desolate as when drift netting was permitted. “Since 2007, there has been a steady increase in stocks. We can’t risk that again,” he says. “Overall, we are happy with the mussel farms. They are ecologically sound. The mussels clean the surrounding water. But this proposed salmon farm, that’s a different ball game.”

He points to a study last month in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, to which Dr Paddy Gargan of Inland Fisheries Ireland contributed.

The study concluded that “salmon farms located close to estuaries and migration routes of wild salmonids have severe effects on the survival of migrating salmon and trout”.

This landmark research is also the cornerstone of a complaint made by Salmonwatch Ireland to the European Commission about the lax regulation of aquaculture inIreland.

It’s worth noting that approximately two thirds of the country’s fish farms are in Natura 2000 sites, the sensitive estuaries into which rivers with protected fish species flow.

John Murphy, Kerry-based director of Salmonwatch Ireland, said: “Most fish farms in this country aren’t licensed, and then when they are, appropriate assessments are not being carried out. The existing regulation is nothing but protocols, just numbers. Under the EU Habitats Act, much more detailed environmental impact assessments should be undertaken.”

The Irish Examiner spoke to Alec O’Donovan in Bantry after he, third- generation fisherman Ciarán O’Shea and Breda O’Sullivan met up with local Fine Gael councillor Noel Harrington. Opponents of the project haven’t got much local political support with councillors loathe to be viewed as being in any way anti-jobs.

“Well, the first thing he told us was that he was pro-fish farming. All we asked was that he would hear us out and listen to our concerns. We listed our many reasons for opposing the project and he did listen but he was slow enough to admit that he’d keep an open mind,” said Breda.

She is angry that Bantry’s traditional shell-fishing grounds could, she fears, be less accessible and at greater risk of pollution because of the project.

“I want to eat wild fish and not fish that is fed from pellets, as the traditional fish will end up eating these as well,” she said.

For 11 years, Markus Bäuchle has been bringing tourists to Adrigole from Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg on his Wanderlust guided walking tours.

“We bring walkers and holiday-makers from the continent to Ireland. They bring income for the local economy. These people are looking for what South-West Ireland still has: natural and unspoilt resources. They do not look for just another wrecked and ruined destination. There are plenty of those destroyed destinations all over the world and this makes the natural resources of West Cork the more valuable,” he says.

Tony Lowes of Friends of the Irish Environment thinks it’s a fallacy that waste such as faeces, antibiotics and pesticides from the project will be flushed out to sea. “Tidal effects are weak at Bantry Bay and produce only very limited circulation and water exchange. The lack of a well-defined tidal circulation poses serious problems as regards flushing and possible assimilative capacities. During prolonged periods of calm weather it would be very optimistic to hope that complete flushing took place in less than one month,” he said.

Over the coming weeks, the Save Bantry Bay group intends meeting with all local councillors and TDs.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said: “Observations from the general public on foot of the period of public consultation are under active consideration by the department and its technical and scientific advisers at present.”

Marine Harvest has strongly disputed the environmental concerns.

“Our fish stocks are managed in such a way as to mitigate against sea lice infestations. This includes constant monitoring by ourselves and the Irish Marine Institute and management of stock and stock conditions,” said a spokesman. The company also says it works hard to ensure its fish are healthy and that “production leaves a minimal environmental footprint”.

“We believe that the proposal we have made for Shot Head will cause no material or consequential negative impact on Bantry Bay. The wind, wave and current in Bantry Bay is believed to be such that it will dilute and disperse any waste from the Shot Head site (as well as the existing human, aquacultural and agricultural waste present in the Bay) sufficiently to prevent any negative environmental consequences. Our fish health and environmental management plans are designed to minimise environmental impact.” 

In his study, Dr Gargan and his fellow authors recommended the best way to protect wild salmon from fish farming was to create protection areas, similar to the National Salmon Fjords in Norway where salmon fish farming is restricted or prohibited.

But it’s because of such Norwegian regulation that Alec O’Donovan fears Ireland is being targeted for aquaculture expansion. He warned: “When the Norwegian fjords were damaged due to salmon farming, the industry moved to low regulation third-world countries where they had a devastating effect on the local environment.

“When even these countries rejected this polluting industry, they turn to Ireland with our own low regulations. We can’t let it continue.”

The Department of Agriculture and the Marine denied Ireland had weak aquaculture regulation. In December, it launched a new aquaculture licence system to address technological, environmental and legal concerns.

“They will form the basis for sustainable development of the industry and the creation of long-term jobs into the future,” said Mr Coveney.

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