Ireland’s fish farming plans cause environmental concern
Financial Times, 23 June 2013
By Jamie Smyth in Inver Bay, County Donegal
The sea is alive with flashes of silver as thousands of young salmon dart across the surface of Inver Bay on Ireland’s northwest coast. Almost a million Atlantic salmon are maturing at this organic farm, which Dublin wants to replicate – and on a much larger scale – just along the coast.
“Fish farming is the future,” says Donal Maguire of Ireland’s sea fisheries board. “There is surging global demand for fish, prices are rising, and we simply can’t provide enough Irish organic salmon to meet demand.”
The board wants to build the EU’s biggest salmon farm in Galway Bay, 200km further south on Ireland’s west coast, capable of producing 15,000 tonnes of salmon each year on a 456 hectare site. The farm would double Ireland’s farmed salmon production and create 500 jobs in a rural area struggling with chronic unemployment.
The proposal is part of Dublin’s plan to diversify its economy following its property and banking crash and to boost the value of its seafood sector by a quarter to €1bn by 2020.
It comes as the UN confirmed this week that global fish prices had hit a record high. Supply constraints, fuelled by China’s growing appetite for seafood, will push prices higher in coming months, says the UN. With wild fish stocks dwindling due to overfishing, many see farming as the best way to feed the world’s population.
“We can’t go on fishing forever,” says Catherine McManus, technical manager at Marine Harvest, the Norwegian company that owns the Inver bay farm and has captured almost a third of the global salmon and trout farming market. “Farming offers the most sustainable way to feed a growing population while protecting wild stocks.”
But salmon farming is also deeply unpopular in Ireland. Anglers and environmental campaigners accuse the industry of spreading disease and decimating stocks of wild fish to use as food for farmed salmon.
“This is a crazy scheme. Galway Bay is one of the most beautiful and important locations for tourism in Ireland,” says Enda Conneally, who runs a restaurant on Inisheer, a small island just 2km from the proposed farm site.
“Plonking an industrial-style fish farm a mile off Inisheer island risks costing far more money than it could generate. Most people on the island are opposed to this project,” he says.
Damien O’Brien, a campaigner for the group No Salmon Farms at Sea, claims that fish farms wiped out the Irish Sea trout fishery in the early 1990s. “It is a dirty, filthy industry that causes pollution and a major sea lice problem for wild salmon. This parasite can devastate wild stocks and damage the valuable angling industry, which attracts a lot of tourists.”
Sea lice are a naturally occurring parasite which attach themselves to salmon and graze on the mucus, skin and blood of the fish. Fish farms are susceptible to outbreaks, and migrating wild salmon can become infected as they pass by the farms on their journey to feeding grounds in the north Atlantic.
Scientists disagree on the danger posed by lice. A nine-year study by Ireland’s Marine Institute found they were a “minor and irregular component of marine mortality” and were “unlikely to be a significant factor influencing conservation status of salmon stocks”. It found no evidence that lice caused the steep decline in Ireland’s sea trout fishery in the early 1990s.
However, there is increasing evidence that lice from farms can be “a significant cause of mortality on nearby wild fish populations”, says Mark Costello, associate professor at the University of Auckland.
Oceana, a marine conservation organisation, says it has serious reservations about farming carnivorous fish such as salmon, due to the huge amount of smaller fish killed to provide fish meal. “For every one pound of farmed salmon you need three or four pounds of wild fish,” says Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s chief scientist. “The logic of feeding wild fish to farmed fish simply makes no sense.”
The industry says it is making strides to cut out waste. “We produce organic salmon at Inver bay. This means the fish meal we use is made from offcuts of fish caught for human consumption,” says Ms McManus.
To produce 1kg of salmon the farm needs 1.2kg of fish feed, she says – but only 10 per cent of the feed is made from fish, and the remainder is from vegetable matter.
The debate over the Galway Bay farm is dividing the local community between those people who prioritise jobs and those who are firstly concerned about the environment. But as wild fish stocks fall further in the years ahead and the world’s population grows, it is a debate with global reach.
“This is a no-brainer,” says Mr Maguire. “You just can’t feed the world without farming from the sea.”
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