Irish Times, 4 March 2013: Salmon farm plan caught on hook of controversy

Irish Times, 4 March 2013: Salmon farm plan caught on hook of controversy

ALISON HEALY, Food and Farming Correspondent

It’s a project that’s promising up to 500 jobs in a remote part of the country, but a steady campaign of opposition has been building since Bord Iascaigh Mhara announced its plan to develop an organic salmon farm off the Galway coast.

The State agency has completed a 16-week consultation on its application and is waiting for approval from the Department of Agriculture. If it gets the green light, the farm will produce up to 15,000 tonnes of salmon a year – double Ireland’s current salmon production.

If approved, the best-case scenario could see the first fish going into the water in autumn of next year, according to BIM chief executive Jason Whooley.

But opponents of the project only see the worst-case scenario. They claim it will spread sea lice, decimate the wild salmon population and create pollution.

Galway city was the scene of the latest protest on Saturday and more are expected. Groups such as No Salmon Farms At Sea, Save Bantry Bay, Save Galway Bay and Friends of the Irish Environment have raised concerns about the plans.

So too has Inland Fisheries Ireland, which is a statutory authority charged with the conservation, protection and development of the inland fisheries resource. It has highlighted the scale of the proposal and the threat of sea lice.

But BIM insists this is a good news story and says people will see the benefits as soon as the project begins. Whooley says it will create 350 direct jobs and at least 150 indirect jobs as processing companies start up or expand.

The project will gradually grow in scale, so it could take four or five years before those jobs are realised. The Irish Sea Spray seafood company in Lettermore has already said it will take on 50 more people if the salmon farm gets the green light.

Some opponents of the plan accuse BIM of using the promise of jobs to sway people’s views. Whooley says big multinationals are never going to set up in coastal communities, so people need other options.

“There is a duty and onus on us as an organisation, because our clear constituency is in those communities. Without jobs and the economic vibrancy that jobs bring, those communities die.”

This project is promising a “wage flow” of about €14.5 million. Studies show that for every €1 generated in seafood wages, €4.60 gets spent in the community.

“They go to the local shop, they have a few drinks in the local pub, they eat in the local restaurant. That multiplier effect is heavily diluted in urban areas, but it’s very concentrated in rural areas.”

Food export

He says the biggest challenge of the Irish farmed salmon companies and fish smokers is not having enough raw material to meet the demand.

“We’ve a farmed salmon market in Europe that grew by 15 per cent last year. The market consumed an additional 120,000 tonnes of farmed salmon last year, so consumers are voting with their forks.

“It’s the number one species of seafood in the United States, the number one seafood consumed in Japan, the number one food export from Scotland, so the market is there and for Irish organic farmed salmon the market is exceptional.”

This project is novel in that BIM will hold the licence for the farm but will put the operation of the site out to tender.

Some 22 investors from three continents have expressed interest in running the farm, half of whom are Irish.

But opponents have claimed it is not a transparent process because the licence is granted by the Department of Agriculture and BIM is under the aegis of the same department.

“I don’t know if there has been any higher level of consultation anywhere else. Even when the Minister makes a decision, it can then be appealed to the aquaculture licence appeals board,” Whooley says.

“That’s effectively the equivalent of An Bord Pleanála, so that gives a huge comfort to the public that the right decision will be taken.”

The claim that the fish farm will spread sea lice among wild salmon is one of the most commonly-cited objections to the plan from anglers.

Whooley says the angling fraternity “has been opposed to salmon farming in Ireland for the last 30-plus years”, so the opposition isn’t surprising.

“It is a disappointment though because the scientific advice published by the Marine Institute recently is unequivocal. There is no detrimental impact on wild salmon stocks from salmon farming.”

The Marine Institute study was conducted over nine years and involved 350,000 fish in eight different locations around the country.

“In very simple terms, it found if 100 salmon leave a river to go to sea, when they come back into the river to spawn, only five will return. Of the 95 that don’t return, one might die from sea lice and this is what the furore is about – that one fish,” he says.

‘Mixed messages’

“My question is, surely we should be looking at what’s causing the 95 not to come back? What’s killing the majority of those fish? Surely that’s where the concerns should be.”

Despite the vocal campaign, he says many people are in favour of the salmon farm. “But I’m also conscious that some people are really confused by the mixed messages that are out there and that concerns me.

“We’re a State body. We’re around since 1952. We’re not going to do something that is going to have a detrimental impact on the local community or environment.”

BIM is planning two other salmon farms in Mayo and Donegal. Equipment is now monitoring the environment off Inishturk and Inishbofin to see if the area is suitable but no work has been done yet on the Donegal coast.

One thing is certain. Controversy over salmon farms won’t end any time soon.

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