Sea Lice, Salmon Farms and the Irish Government: A Lethal Mix
Irish Environment, 1 Nov 2013
In 1995 an Irish Government task force recommend a 20 kilometre buffer zone between open net pen salmon farms and the migratory path of wild salmon to our rivers because of the danger of infestations of sea lice. Sea lice are a parasite which thrive in salmon farms, infecting passing wild salmon and accounting for mortalities of up to 45% of the fish that would otherwise return to our rivers.
The issue has pitted environmentalists and anglers against Government agencies while the Government agencies themselves have publicly differed, much to the bemusement of the public itself.
In 2008 Bord Iascaigh Mhara [the Sea Fisheries Board], acting on behalf of the Government, initiated a statutory consultation for the Strategic Environmental Assessment [SEA] of the National Development Plan 2007 – 2013 Aquaculture Operational Programme. The Operational Programme proposed more than doubling farmed salmon production from 13,700 tons in 2005 to 30,000 tons by 2015.
As part of this Assessment, comments were submitted in 2008 by the Marine Institute and Inland Fisheries Ireland. The Marine Institute argued that ‘clear scientific evidence from both the Atlantic and Pacific show that in situations where high sea lice levels are present, lice emanating from the farms can adversely impact wild migratory salmon.’ Inland Fisheries provided a detailed presentation of the ‘direct evidence of an impact of sea lice causing increased marine mortality on Irish salmon smoults’.
On the basis of submissions received in this statutory consultation for the Assessment, the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine [Agriculture] agreed in July 2010 that ‘The targets for increased productive capacity for salmon will now have to be deferred until after 2013 as a result of the amendments made to this Programme arising from comments received during the SEA process until such time as the sea lice issue has been satisfactory resolved’.
This moratorium on further development of fish farms was vehemently opposed by the Irish Farmers Association who had taken on board fish farming as part of its remit. The Farmers Association threatened to walk out of the entire National Development Plan negotiations. Consequently, parallel with the moratorium agreement the government committed to fund a ’Project to improve sea lice management on salmon farms.’ The proposal was intended to assuage the Farmers Association after the moratorium was put in place over their objections.
The Sea Fisheries Board drew up a detailed three-year plan to examine ways to ‘improve sea lice management on salmon farms’. Resumption of funding for the 2014 – 2019 Operational Programme would be dependent on a ‘sustained period of sea lice control’.
Decision to double national production
A new Government in early 2011 under a new Minister for Agriculture – Cork TD Simon Coveney – ignored the moratorium. The Steering Committee for the project never met. The sea lice project never took place.
Instead the Minister unveiled an ambitious development programme for a necklace of nine mega open net salmon farms in the Bays along the Irish west coast. The first, in Galway Bay, would be the largest salmon farm in Europe. It alone will more than double the current national production of 12,000 tons.
World wide, total farmed production of Atlantic salmon was 1,570,000 tonnes in 2011. While the industry has contracted or stagnated in Canada, Scotland and Ireland, Norway continues to expand and is by far the leading producer with 63% of the world production. Scotland, cited by the Minister in support of his expansionist plans, produced 154,164 tonnes in 2010 – 10% of the world’s production. Ireland produced only 12,000 tons in 2012, the same as 2009. That represents less than 1% of the world’s production.
In this context, the Minister’s plans to establish 9 mega-farms of 15,000 tons each would give an annual national production potential of 147,000 tons – very close to Scotland’s 10%.
Applications and renewals of Irish salmon farm licences have been held up since 2006, when the Government amended legislation to allow operators to continue aquaculture operations on expired licences until the situation was regularised. The delays have been due at least in part because almost all the aquaculture sites are located in Natura 2000 EU sites which set the bar high for the assessment of any projects not necessary for the achievement of the sites’ objectives.
Consequently, the Minister instructed the Sea Fisheries Board, one of 11 agencies under his remit, to apply for the first licence – in Galway Bay at the mouth of the Corrib River system, a protected salmon habitat. This ‘in house’ arrangement, while legal, is not best practice as the Sea Fisheries Board has a consultative role in advising the Minister on licence applications. Last year’s Cohen Report on sea lice in Canada’s Frazer River System, faced with a similar arrangement, recommended that ‘The Government of Canada should remove from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ mandate the promotion of salmon farming as an industry and farmed salmon as a product’.
At the same time, the Irish Government’s funding for alternatives, such as closed containment systems that create a barrier between the environment and the farmed fish, was cut. Closed containment systems are now seen as the only realistic way to control parasites, diseases and escapes as well as avoiding the eco-system disruptions which can be created by waste feed and faeces from millions of fish aggregated at one location.
While money was said not to be available for research to resolve the sea lice problem or for alternative trials, the Sea Fisheries Board was provided with an extra €1m in December 2011 in recognition of their work on ‘deep sea’ aquaculture developments. Calling the proposals ‘deep sea’ was an attempt to portray the development as far removed from our sensitive river systems that are host to wild salmon. In fact, the Galway Bay site is in the geographical centre of Galway Bay. At its deepest it is only 28 metres; ‘deep sea’ is a scientific term for water more than 1000 metres deep.
The Sea Fisheries Board prepared an unsigned Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] for the Galway Bay project and issued a stream of positive press releases – even including paid advertisements touting the number of jobs that would be on offer – in newspapers across the country.
The science of sea lice and wild salmon mortalities
To support its expansionary plans, the government has relied on a 2011 publication in the Canadian journal ‘Aquaculture’ by a Marine Institute’s Fisheries Inspector – Dr. David Jackson – which claimed to prove that overall the sea louse was responsible for only 1% of our wild salmon mortalities ‘overall’.
Jackson’s work – which entirely contradicted his Marine Institute’s 2008 position during the Assessment of the aquaculture programme – became the cornerstone of the Minister’s position. The sea lice issue had been solved.
Jackson’s work was the sole study cited in the sea lice section of the EIS required for the Galway Bay fish farm licence application. Promoted as a ‘ten year study by the Marine Institute’, its’ conclusion was ‘that infestation of outwardly migrating salmon smolts with sea lice was only a minor component of the overall marine mortality in the stocks studied’.
Jackson’s work and the 1% claim on which it relies have now been undermined by published peer reviews.
In August 2013 a ‘Short Communication’ from four international scientific experts from four Universities was published in the same Journal where Jackson’s 1% claim was published. It detailed three fundamental failures in the author’s methodology. When the data was re-analysed correctly it showed the true mortalities of wild salmon were 34%.
Jackson’s work contradicted a large and growing body of international research. This included the ‘Sustainable Management of interactions between aquaculture and wild salmonid fish’ [SUMBAWS] project that Inland Fisheries and its senior scientist, Dr. Paddy Gargan, had been involved in. The multi-annual three countries EU-sponsored project began in 2002 and showed sea lice mortalities were reducing the number of salmon returning to Irish rivers by up to 45%.
At the request of Friends of the Irish Environment [FIE], Dr. Mark Costello, Chair of the World Register of Marine Species and President of the International Association of Biological Oceanography with many papers on the subject of sea lice and salmon mortalities, wrote to the Irish Minister for Agriculture in May 2013. Explaining that he rarely became involved in this kind of controversy, he told the Minister he had been ‘surprised at some of the recent incorrect information in the media’ – presumably the promotional material from the Sea Fisheries Board and the Farmer’s Association, repeated in the Irish Times and on RTE, the national radio and television station, without challenge.
Costello told the Minister ‘sea lice are the most significant impact of salmon farms generally by virtue of their impact on wild salmon mortalities’, stating that ‘lice from farms may infest wild fish up to a distance of 30 km’.
The EU ‘Pilot’ Investigation
The EU SUMBAWS study spurred FIE and Salmon Watch Ireland to lodge formal complaints to the European Commission’s Compliance Unit of the Environmental Directorate in 2009. The data showed Ireland was permitting salmon farms which were infringing the Habitats Directive by allowing salmon farm generated infestations that were increasing wild salmon mortality rates. The Commission had already achieved judgments against Ireland relating to salmon farms under the EIA Directive and so non-compliance here could lead directly to the imposition of fines by the European Court of Justice.
The EU began a ‘Pilot’ investigation, a new procedure established in 2008 that was designed as an initial investigation into complaints that might be resolved without legal proceedings before the European Court of Justice. It was intended that complainants and the relevant national authorities would be put directly in touch with each other so issues could be resolved through cooperation.
The terms of the Pilot investigation were drawn up in December 2009 by the Commission. They included a request for the measures Ireland had in place for appropriate assessments to be undertaken to ensure that any potential impact on wild salmon is eliminated. It specifically sought the views of the National Parks and Wildlife Service [the Wildlife Service] and the ‘express view of the agency responsible for inland game fisheries’, which is Inland Fisheries, the agency responsible for wild fisheries in Irish river systems under the 2010 Inland Fisheries legislation and the 2011 Habitats Regulations. Ironically, in view of what was to transpire, they also asked the Irish authorities how the views of Wildlife Service and Inland Fisheries were taken into account in decision making in licensing such fish farms.
After a reminder, Agriculture responded to the EU request in March 2010. A request for further information was answered in June 2010, reassuring the Commission that there was a ‘robust and transparent regulatory system in place’. The same Agriculture that was at that very time willing to anger the Farmers Association and the industry by agreeing to a moratorium on salmon farm development until the sea lice issue was resolved was telling the Commission that there was no sea lice issue: ‘The respondent would further inform the Commission that no empirical evidence has been made available suggesting that the presence of sea lice in salmon fish farms has a significant impact on the protected species in the areas mentioned by the complainant.’
In September 2010 the Acting Head of the Environmental Directorate’s Compliance Unit, frustrated at the failure of the Irish authorities to provide the report requested from Inland Fisheries, rang the Department of Foreign Affairs [Foreign Affairs] EU Division who were contact point for the Commission in Ireland. He told them that if the views of Inland Fisheries were not received, the Commission would consider moving the investigation from a Pilot to the first stage of European Court of Justice infringement proceedings against Ireland, the proceedings that in the end can see significant daily and lump fines imposed on member states.
The ultimatum was relayed by Foreign Affairs to Agriculture and the Inland Fisheries Report was duly requested from Natural Resources. Written by Inland Fisheries scientists and approved by the Inland Fisheries Board, it was provided by Natural Resources to Agriculture on 26 November 2010. It flatly contradicted the government’s responses of earlier that year.
The Inland Fisheries report stated that ‘sea lice control in Ireland has not been effective in practice’, concluding ‘the potential exists for sea lice transfer from farmed salmon to outward migrating wild salmon smoults in any estuary with a marine salmon farm present’.
In the following months there was a general election with a new Government coming into power in February 2011.
In June 2011 Agriculture wrote to Natural Resources that ‘transmission of your Department’s observations to the Commission would not only be misleading but would also cause confusion in the public mind regarding sea lice controls and possibly undermine the state’s regulatory system. For these reasons I would ask you to withdraw the formal observations of your Department and to support the observations supplied to the Commission by us.’
Natural Resources refused. On 15 November 2011, they replied that they ‘categorically and emphatically disagreed with Agriculture’s position’ stating: ‘This is their [Inland Fisheries] valued and considered expert advice, accepted by this Department’. They concluded ‘there appears to be no useful purpose in continuing this debate in correspondence as there clearly is a fundamental differing of views on the salient issues…’
On the same day – 15 November 2011 – Agriculture wrote to the European Commission that ‘A final response from Natural Resources is awaited’.
Less than a month later a single page document supporting the Agriculture position signed by Natural Resources – but not signed or approved by its agency Inland Fisheries – was provided.
Thus, Ireland successfully hid from the Commission the knowledge that during the summer of 2010 when the Pilot investigation was ongoing the then Minister had signed an order for a moratorium on further salmon farm funding because of the sea lice issue. It had then suppressed the ‘express views of the agency designated for the protection of wild salmon’. Consequently, the investigation could not meet the Commission’s ‘fundamental prerequisite that there be uncontested scientific evidence of the negative impact of sea lice from farmed salmon on wild salmon’. The Pilot investigation was closed on 6 November 2012.
Minister Coveney trumpeted the end of the investigation in the Irish Parliament, claiming that Ireland has ‘the best sea lice control system in Europe’ and that ‘as far as we are concerned, sea lice are no longer an issue’.
The Redress for Maladministration process
Based on extensive files that had been refused to requestors during the ongoing investigation but had to be released when the case was closed, FIE decided to take further action.
In order to bring a complaint about an administrative action to a national – or the European – Ombudsman, the complainant must first seek redress from the author of the action – the agency or Government Department that committed the maladministration.
FIE brought Requests for Redress for Maladministration against three of the parties.
The first was lodged on 17 June, 2013 against the European Commission for failing to complete the terms of its investigation and obtain the ‘express views of the agency responsible for wild game fisheries’. The decision on whether they will reopen the investigation was originally due at the end of September 2013. FIE has just referred this long delay – more than four months – to the European Ombudsman requesting that office’s assistance in obtaining a reply. If the Commission refuses to reopen the investigation, the matter can then be referred to the European Ombudsman for full consideration.
The second Request was to Agriculture on the 27th of June. It cited the Irish communication to the Commission on 15 November 2011 telling them they had not received the Inland Fisheries final Report when they had and showed how they had ultimately suppressed that Report, failing in their duty of loyal cooperation under the Treaty of Rome.
After Agriculture denied the allegations of maladministration, the case was referred by FIE to the Irish Ombudsman on the 6th of August, 2013. On the 6th of September the Ombudsman’s office agreed to open a preliminary investigation into Agriculture’s actions.
The third request was made on the 28th of June 2013 to Foreign Affairs, the contact point for the Commission, which had assigned the file solely to Agriculture. The correct protocol, outlined since to FIE by the Department of the Taoiseach which is now the contact point, is that when a request for information includes more than one agency each of them should be assigned as file handlers responding directly to the Commission request. Putting Agriculture in charge of the investigation was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken house.
Foreign Affair’s failure to respond to FIE’s request was also referred to the Ombudsman, provoking a flat denial of maladministration. The Ombudsman, after seeking further information, announced an extension of the investigation to include Foreign Affair’s actions on 24 October, 2013.
Rather than being ‘no longer an issue’, as Minister Coveney claims, sea lice levels have continued to rise in spite of Government ‘protocols’ as resistance to the biocides increases and mean ocean temperatures warm, favouring the reproduction of sea lice.
Marine Harvest is the Norwegian multi-national that produces 80% of Ireland’s current production of farmed salmon using the 14 licences it has acquired as part of the purchase of the original operators since 1983. Its last Annual Report shows that the number of their sites exceeding the sea lice limit tripled from 6% in 2010 to 20% by 2012. At the same time, the Irish Marine Institute recorded a national doubling of the already high levels at the two-winter salmon sites from 24% in 2009 to 50% in 2011. Marine Harvest’s recently released 2013 third quarter Report shows that the company’s production is down 35% compared to the same period in 2012 with ‘exceptional mortality’ given as the cause of loses of €4 million for the quarter.
Ireland is about to begin the Strategic Environmental Assessment for the National Development Plan 2014 – 2019. The arguments for a moratorium on any development of the salmon farming industry in open net pens along our coast are even stronger today than they were in July 2010 when a moratorium was first agreed.
Whatever the outcome of the investigations, the plan agreed in 2010 to suspend further development of the industry while work is undertaken to address the sea lice issue must be reinstated if our wild salmon are to be protected.
Tony Lowes, Director, Friends of the Irish Environment
The documents referred to in this article and the requests for Redress for Maladministration are available online from an index on the Friends of the Environment website: