Southern Star, 6 March 2014: Pushing a contentious fish farming strategy

Pushing a contentious fish farming strategy

Southern Star, 6 March 2014

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ACCORDING to the great Millstreet poet, Francis Duggan, ‘Doctors differ and patients die, that’s a fact and facts don’t lie’ – which might be true in the case of the medical doctors who advise Dr Death, our Minister for Health, but not for Simon Coveney, our Minister for the Marine.

The latter has recourse to doctors of science and, with their help, he’s pushing a contentious strategy to convince the nation that BIM’s multi-million euro salmon farm for Galway Bay is the real deal.

Fishermen in West Cork don’t buy into his plan, nor does Inland Fisheries Ireland, which warns of the damage sea lice (a scourge associated with salmon farms) can do to wild fish, native habitats, freshwater quality and the €700m angling industry.

Inevitably, Coveney now finds himself entangled in a controversy that has drawn in the EU Environment Commission. It has opened an investigation into the Coveney / BIM project.

Stoutly defending

Last week, the salmon farm wrangle jumped all over the national media as a result of the Marine Institute stoutly defending scientists who produced three reports relating to the problem of sea lice.

The Marine Institute research claimed that sea lice were unlikely to be a significant factor influencing conservation status of salmon stock. It said 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.’

Scientists from the University of Toronto, the University of Prince Edward, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and the Scottish Ocean’s Institute at St Andrew’s disagreed. They suggested in the Journal of Fish Diseases that the Marine Institute findings contained ‘methodological errors’ and they argued that the percentage of wild salmon killed by sea lice was not one per cent, as claimed by the Marine Institute, but more than thirty times higher!

Last week this newspaper learned that the Journal of Fish Diseases had apologised to the Marine Institute for applying inadequate editorial procedures when publishing criticism of the Institute’s data. The journal consequently downgraded the critical article to ‘comment’ and relocated it in the category of ‘opinion.’

It turned out that the adverse critique of the Institute’s scientific findings relating to sea lice was not peer-reviewed by external experts, merely assessed by journal staff to speed up publication.

The Marine Institute then informed this newspaper that their scientists’ original ‘robust findings’ had been confirmed through the peer review process, and that the Institute stood firmly over scientific conclusions established in that way.

Not listening

In the meantime, all the signs are that the BIM project for Galway Bay will go ahead. Millions of State funds are about to be pumped into it, with hearty approval for the project coming from the Marine Institute, BIM and Coveney.

And this is despite the fact that opposing arguments from fishermen, anglers, and Inland Fisheries Ireland (which is a division of Minister Rabbitte’s Department of Energy and Natural Resources) are being overlooked.

Ominously, Coveney is not listening to scientists who are warning of the possible destruction of wild salmon and trout stocks, as is happening in the west of Scotland and parts of Norway where many fish farms operate.

Coveney is not listening to scientists who are warning of the possible destruction of wild salmon and trout stocks

Concerned scientists are advocating closed containment systems that separate farmed fish from wild fish and the environment. They claim that the use of such a procedure better controls the spread of disease and parasites.

Wet haddock

And then, having been the recipient of a metaphorical slap with a wet haddock because of comments on the sea lice controversy, your humble scribe was reeled into the argy-bargy.

So, in response, we fished about in our notes and landed these important observations. They belong to world-renown expert on sea lice and salmon, Dr Mark J Costello, Associate Professor of Marine Science at the University of Auckland and a graduate of UCG.

In 2009, the prof published important reviews in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences’. They were entitled ‘How sea lice from salmon farms may cause wild salmonid declines in Europe, North America and be a threat to fishes elsewhere.’

He sent a copy of his work to Minister Coveney on May 10th, 2013. Given the polemical nature (scientific and otherwise) of the fish farming controversy in West Cork, Dr Costello’s covering letter, which is a summary of his peer-reviewed research, deserves mention here.

He wrote: ‘Salmon lice emanating from farms have been linked to epizootics (mass fatal parasite infestations) on wild salmonids (salmon, trout and their relatives) in Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Canada. These epizootics are unusual in being mass infestations of the earliest life-stages of salmon lice on salmonids migrating from rivers to the sea.

‘This means the fish were all infected at the same time as they entered the sea. They have only been reported in locations with salmon farms. These problems have not occurred in countries with low salmon farm production. Could the repeated epizootics in different years in the same places and in different places with salmon farms all be coincidences?’

He answers the question by describing in detail how lice from farms infest wild fish, and that on large farms it is difficult to treat all fish simultaneously. ‘If there are a million fish on a farm with one egg-bearing louse each, the farm may release 50 million lice larvae.’

Key to problem

‘So the number of fish on the farm as well as the average number of lice is key to the problem’ – but, he argues, while it is possible to keep the number of lice below what is harmful to the farm fish they may still be producing a lot of lice larvae.

According to Dr Costello, not all salmon farms have problems with sea lice and, should they occur, there are several ways to deal with them. ‘The most effective method of dealing with sea lice is to remove all fish from the farm and leave it fallow for some time,’ he says.

He concludes his letter to Coveney with the observation that ‘fish farming can have environmental impacts. It appears that sea lice are the most significant impact of salmon farms generally by virtue of their impact on wild salmonids.’

Whether or not Coveney read the balanced letter and the attached research articles is a matter of conjecture. In the meantime, the problem of lice remains central to all debate regarding fish farming but, incredibly, Coveney is continuing to keep his gob shut. So much for public discourse on matters of national interest!

Hopefully, the minister’s silence (indifference?) will not lead to a disaster for the Irish inland fishery industry, and that we are not in for a situation whereby our fish will be recognised as admirable for swimming purposes but not for eating!

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