Irish Examiner, 7 August 2014: Monster salmon farm proposals are fishing in troubled waters

Monster salmon farm proposals are fishing in troubled waters


Irish Examiner, 7 August 2014


Coastal communities’ desperation for jobs is being exploited, along with riches of seas, argues Victoria White 


WHEN Bill Smyth, of Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages, says Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s ‘Environmental Impact Study’ into the proposed, massive fish farm in the lee of Inisheer contains “so much fiction that it should be nominated for the Booker Prize”, I want to shout “Where’s the suspense?” 


There isn’t a twist or a turn in the plot, in all its 300 pages. Summary: is the proposed, 456-hectare salmon farm in Galway Bay a good idea? Yes. Are there any problems associated with the proposed development? No. 


The Deep Sea Salmon Project will feed Europe healthy food, restore the Irish language, revive traditional island life, and provide the raw material for what are puzzlingly called “artesian producers”, says the study. Far from damaging our tourism potential, the project will market us as a green destination, because “the clean-green sustainable nature of the island community can be incorporated into brand values.” 


BIM is so confident of its ability to predict the future that it talks of enormous waves as a “one in 50-years event”, though the only thing a reputable climate scientist will tell you about the weather for the next half-century is that all bets are off. Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney’s decision on this development is pending, but BIM have proceeded and lodged a proposal for another monster salmon farm, this time between Inishbofin, Co. Galway, and Inishturk, Co. Mayo. This, with Galway Bay, would double our farmed salmon production. When Iwent to Inishbofin this week, the proposal was causing strain on the island. 


Few would talk openly, but Dr. John Mercer, who has recently retired from NUIG’s research facility in Carna, after a 30-year career in aquaculture, and who has a home on the island, met me. He expressed his concerns about deep-sea salmon farms that will be among the biggest in the world. He is passionately in favour of fish farming, but he says the proposed salmon farm between Inishbofin and Inishturk is “environmental and financial madness.” 


Why? The bigger the farm, the more that can go wrong. He says the water current around the proposed Bofin/Turk farm won’t be able to dissipate that amount of fish excrement. The proposed farm is on the migratory path of whales and dolphins, and also of wild salmon, with which escaped farm salmon could breed. This would change the genetic make-up of wild salmon, which is unique in every river. 


The ‘red tide’ of toxic marine algae has the potential to wipe out fish farms, unless you tow them out of the way; except you can’t tow a gigantic fish farm anywhere. And sea lice will be multiple times bigger, and the cure (administering fresh water, several cubic feet per animal) would be extremely difficult in the context of a monster fish farm. The lice could infect our wild trout and salmon. 


The fish oils will accumulate and may leave a slick over the famed East End Bay, on Bofin. And Dr Mercer also worries about the visual impact of warehousing so much fish food.
The problem, he repeats, is the size of the proposed farm. With multiple small farms, all the risks are smaller than in “huge, gigantic megastore things”. Terrestrial farmers would understand that it is like massively overstocking land. The risk is magnified, as it is with what he calls “any intensive monoculture.” 


This brings me back to something argued by the Galway-based restauranteur and cheese-monger, Seamus Sheridan — that the monster-salmon-farm model creates a monoculture, like the exclusive focus on one crop that was the prelude to the Famine. The fear is that monster salmon farms could presage a famine at sea. 


The prospect of jobs has apparently convinced the tiny population of Inishturk, and some on Inishbofin, to accept BIM’s latest Deep Sea Salmon Project in their waters. That’s perfectly understandable in communities battling for survival. But just because they are living in isolated communities, with few options, doesn’t mean they should be left in the dark. 


The locals have to be told of the potential risks to conventional fishing and to their main industry, tourism. I keep thinking of the big Norwegian whaling venture that was started in the South Iniskea Island, Co. Mayo, in the early years of the 20th century. It left the islands stinking of rotting whale and did nothing to halt their abandonment. 


But there doesn’t seem to be any appetite to tell the people of Turk and Bofin about any of the risks of a monster fish farm. The deep-water salmon fish farms being proposed are to be developed by a process cooked up just for them. BIM itself is applying to develop them, and will franchise them out as soon as the Minister gives the go-ahead. And, considering these farms seem to have been the Minister’s idea in the first place, he’s hardly going to say ‘no’.
There will be no traditional planning process. There will be no public hearing. There will be no independent Environmental Impact Statement. 


And it looks likely that this process is designed to attract a particular foreign investor, most likely the Norwegian multi-national, Marine Harvest, which is quoted on the New York Stock Exchange.
Marine Harvest doesn’t have an unblemished record. Two years ago, levels of pesticide for sea lice, 450 times the allowed limit, were found in a lake in Scotland that hosts a Marine Harvest salmon farm. This year, Marine Harvest’s farms in Mulroy Bay and Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal, closed because of outbreaks of amoebic gill disease, which the company claimed was due to unusually warm water. 


So, is the water temperature in Galway and Mayo constant? Or in Bantry Bay, or in Ballydavid, Co. Kerry, where BIM’s beady eyes have rested recently as potential sites for whopper salmon farms?
Mercer and Sheridan both argue that the motive is the quick buck, and that we should be developing industries with a long-term economic value. Because in his view they have disregarded sustainable yields. 


Mercer accuses BIM and latterly the EU of “the rape of Irish waters”, and reels off the names of fish species that are almost gone: “herring, mackerel, blue whiting, rockfish, cod…”
“All we’re left with is f—king jellyfish”, curses Sheridan. There simply aren’t enough fish to prey on them. And too many jellyfish caused the loss of 20,000 farmed salmon, last year, at Marine Harvest’s facility on Clare Island. 


Mercer and Sheridan both argue passionately that Ireland should concentrate on being the European centre of true marine sustainability rather than selling our natural resources cheaply to multi-nationals. 


There is no certainty in this debate, except for this: we deserve a full, open, independent evaluation of any monster salmon farm, before it gets government approval. Otherwise, it looks much as if isolated coastal communities’ desperation for jobs is being exploited, along with the riches of their seas.

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