The Southern Star, 7 Dec 2013: Baffled by enthusiasm of salmon farm endorsement

Baffled by enthusiasm of salmon farm endorsement

The Southern Star, Saturday December 7th 2013

IN a properly-functioning democracy, political leaders have to answer to the public for their actions. They resign. But in Ireland the idea of holding public officials accountable for their failure to perform in the way expected of them is considered a joke.

As West Cork salmon fishermen know to their cost, our politicos don’t do resignations even when they make a bags of things – as they feel is the case with Marine Minister Simon Coveney.

A matter that baffles fishermen just now is Coveney’s enthusiastic endorsement of a massive BIM salmon farm in Galway Bay that is mired in controversial allegations of flawed and suppressed information – and which has prompted the EU Environment commission to take the unprecedented step of opening an investigation into the project.

Commissioner Janez Potocnik wants clarification of supposed ‘fundamental errors’ allegedly contained in a major scientific analysis carried out by the Marine Institute.

And, he also wants to know why Coveney’s Department of Agriculture withheld a report from Inland Fisheries Ireland (a State agency) that was critical of the Marine Institute’s monitoring of sea lice on fish farms, even though the EU had specifically requested the report. Commissioner Potocnik is now seeking a copy of the documents.

The Galway Bay project is gigantic. Located between the Aran Islands and Galway Bay it will occupy 456 hectares (more than 1,100 acres) and produce more farmed salmon than all existing Irish fish farms combined.
Critics pull no punches when they claim it will create ‘cesspools of disease’ with a sewage equivalent of more than twice the population of Galway city.

Inland Fisheries Ireland point out that sea lice breeds on fish farms and infects migrating wild salmon as they pass the farms. The parasite is also feared for the damage it can do to the country’s rivers, wild fish, native habitats, freshwater quality and, most importantly, the €700m angling industry.
Encouraged to introduce some balance into a very sharp controversy, the Marine Institute produced three reports into salmon farming and the problem of sea lice. To Coveney’s satisfaction, the Institute revealed that fatalities among wild salmon amounted to just one per cent.

Its research established that ‘while sea lice-induced mortality on outwardly migrating salmon smolts can be significant, it is a minor and irregular component of marine mortality in the stocks studied and is unlikely to be a significant factor influencing conservation status of salmon stocks.’

The Marine Institute study also found that rivers near fish farm cages possess healthy stocks of fish and that pollution rather than fish farming was responsible for having the greatest impact on Irish wild salmon.
The Institute recorded a steady and sustained improvement in the overall status of Irish salmon stocks and argued ‘there was no relationship between the presence of salmon farms and difficulties with rivers meeting their conservation limits.’ The authors referred to previous studies that ‘pointed to the fact of sea lice not being a factor in the declining marine survival of sea salmon.’

In other words, salmon farming categorically was not the reason for the low numbers of salmon returning to Irish rivers.

A jubilant Bord Iascaigh Mhara commented: ‘The scare stories in relation to sea lice being a threat to wild salmon, put out by opponents of salmon farming, have no basis in scientific fact.’

Which would have been all very reassuring were it not that Marine Harvest, the Norwegian company that is heavily involved in Bantry Bay and which produces 80% of Ireland’s farmed salmon, acknowledged in its annual report that the number of sea lice infestations trebled over a three-year period.

What’s more, the company posted losses in Ireland of €4m for 2013 and attributed the ‘exceptional mortality’ to disease and parasites and ‘adverse biological events’.

Nor did the Marine Institute’s effort to exonerate sea lice from harming migrating salmon cut much ice with a team of experts from the University of Toronto, the University of Prince Edward, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and the Scottish Ocean’s Institute at St Andrews.

According to the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Marine Institute report contained at least three serious errors.

They were: that data differences from year to year were not treated appropriately; that averages regarding the survival of fish were used incorrectly; and that the study had mistakes in measuring control and treatment groups which led to wider inaccuracies.

These ‘fundamental methodological errors’ contributed to an incorrect assessment of the percentage of wild salmon killed by sea lice. And then came the knockout blow: The mortality percentage was not ‘one per cent,’ but ‘more than thirty times higher’ – or one-third of the overall number of adult salmon!

A hullabaloo ensued that in normal circumstances would have prompted a right ol’ discussion in scientific journals and this, in turn, would have led to an inevitable adjustment of opinions – and no harm done. But, with millions of State funds about to be poured into the BIM project, these weren’t normal circumstances.
The Marine Institute reports actually became the cornerstones of the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed fish farm. And, when Galway West TD Noel Grealish sought clarification in the Dail as to why questionable results were used for an impact statement he got no reply, other than that the ‘Marine Institute protocols were strictly evidence-based and totally independent of the industry.’

That’s not good enough. If the Marine Institute’s study doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, then it’s flawed – which raises very serious questions as to why Minister Coveney should persist in sticking to its findings.

On top of that, there is the extraordinary situation of the state agency, Inland Fisheries Ireland (closely associated with Rabbitte’s Department of Energy and Natural Resources) taking issue with Coveney’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries!

As well, we have the EU Commission seeing fit to reopen the Marine Institute files and telling the minister that he has until January 15th to provide an explanation for the so-called ‘fundamental errors’ and the serious discrepancies between the different studies.

What does all that say about Coveney’s competence? Is he the man for the job? Is he embarrassed that an important Inland Fisheries Ireland report was not included in his department’s final submission to the EU in 2011?

Is there a conflict of interest between Coveney’s advocacy of the Galway project and the situation of having his own department as the licensing authority?

But the most serious question doing the rounds is this: has his department been tailoring scientific evidence to suit an outcome that he and BIM have been advancing?

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