Report: Will mechanical harvesting of seaweed lead to ecological disaster?

With licences being secured and sought to mechanically harvest seaweed in Bantry Bay and parts of the west coast residents fear the damage may be irreparable, writes Louise Roseingrave.

Irish coastal dwellers have been harvesting seaweed by hand for hundreds of years but that’s about to change in Bantry Bay.

Following a five-year application process, the first licence for the mechanical harvesting of seaweed in Ireland and Britain has been secured by a Kerry-based bioengineering company, BioAtlantis Ltd. CEO John T O’Sullivan hopes to begin harvesting the bay’s underwater kelp forests on a five-year rotation basis later this year.

He faces growing opposition, however, as locals are only now becoming aware of the plan. Residents along Bantry Bay describe the lack of public consultation as alarming and fear the seaweed won’t grow back. One of the conditions of the foreshore licence, issued by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government (DECLG), is that the project will be subject to an environmental study and monitoring paid for by BioAtlantis. As such, the harvesting at Bantry Bay will act as a test case to ascertain whether or not mechanical seaweed harvesting is sustainable.

“We applied for a licence in 2009. We went through every loop that was there,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

John T. O’Sullivan, CEO, BioAtlantis

The public consultation process required the posting of a notice in Bantry garda station and the publication of an advertisement in a local and national newspaper. The notice was posted at Bantry garda station for 21 days in December 2009 and an advertisement was published in the Southern Star newspaper on Dec 12, 2009. The department states that a notification was placed in a national newspaper but no record of this has been found. A department press officer confirmed that ‘normal public consultation procedures were followed in this case.’ No submissions were received.

Asked if he spoke to any local people about mechanical harvesting in Bantry Bay, Mr O’Sullivan said ‘everything was done by the book’.

As part of the foreshore licence process, the application was circulated to various bodies and submissions were received from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Underwater Archeology Unit, the Marine Survey Office, Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, Eastern Regional Fisheries Board, Central Fisheries Board and the Marine Institute.

A qualified accountant by profession, Mr O’Sullivan plans to use the harvested seaweed to develop alternatives to the use of antibiotics in pig feed. He insists he ‘jumped through hoops’ to secure the licence, a process he says has cost him in the region of €5million to date.

An eight-year monitoring process is a requirement of the licence, four years pre-harvest and another four post-harvest, monitoring fish, invertebrate fauna, fauna attached to kelp and kelp holdfasts as well as on rocks in the understory of the kelp area and marine flora at harvested and non-harvested sites. BioAtlantis is required to provide an annual report on harvesting activities to include the areas and quantities harvested and measured regeneration.

“There is 20% of the standing stock of Laminaria (kelp) washed ashore every year. So one storm on one bad day will do more damage than we can ever do,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

Bantry resident and Coastwatch Ireland volunteer, Summer Sheehy, testing materials in Bantry Bay.

One of the criteria for the granting of the licence is that it’s in the public interest. The Marine Institute sees kelp as a significant natural resource that, if sustainably exploited, ‘could lead to the development of novel products which would, in turn, stimulate economic development.’

“We want to see an indigenous Irish seaweed sector and it is our responsibility to ensure that it takes place in a safe and controlled manner,” the Institute said in its statement on the mechanical harvesting of kelp in Bantry Bay.

Jobs will be created in the harvesting and processing of the kelp, according to Mr O’Sullivan.

“We have 58 people employed, working in the seaweed industry. We have a patented product, we are extracting and purifying compounds from seaweed that can help in pig health. There is a huge issue across Europe in terms of overuse of antibiotics. One or two of the compounds in the seaweed helps to mitigate that issue.”

“I’m trying to build an industry, not a company. It’s never been done before. Above in Norway, they can put down a dredge and just pull it off the seabed. I’m trying to develop technology where you don’t touch the seabed at all. It’s seriously complicated because you have to take account of the undulating seabed and the waves of the sea,” he said.

Concerned Bantry resident Deirdre Fitzgerald has been investigating the licensing procedure and sharing information on social media. She is alarmed by various aspects of the process.

“This only come to light earlier this year, when an episode of Eco Eye discussed the planned harvest of 1860 acres of kelp forest in Bantry Bay. There were no public meetings to inform people,” she said.

“We have White Tailed Eagles resident in the bay, whales, dolphins, seals, otters, and so many bird species that rely on this bay for food. What will be the impact on juvenile fish as a food source for all these species once this kelp is removed from the bay?”

Ms Fitzgerald set up a Change.org petition to Minister Simon Coveney against the mechanical harvesting of kelp in Bantry Bay which has gathered more than 3,300 supporters.

In response to an Irish Examiner query, the Department of Housing and Planning confirmed that approval in principle was made in 2011 with final determination of the application in 2014. “The Minister took into consideration the valuable scientific information that would be provided through the monitoring programme, feeding into policy development in the area of sustainable development of seaweed, the fact that there were no objections from members of the public and the Marine Licence Vetting Committee had recommended that harvesting trials be carried out,” spokesman John Whelan said.

Bernie Connolly, Cork Coastwatch coordinator, Owen Boyden, skipper, and Karin Dubsky Coastwatch Europe co-founder.

Coastwatch Europe co-founder Dr Karin Dubsky says the planned method of cutting kelp 25cm from the root will effectively kill the plant. Kelp provides a natural canopy for a whole ecosystem of marine life.

“It’s like clear felling a forest. The result would be barren ground and other species will come in. But what other species?” she said.

The licence allows for the mechanical harvesting of more than 80% of kelp stocks in Bantry Bay, according to Ms Dubsky. She believes the licence area of 753 acres is an excessive test area in an already vulnerable bay.

“We already have a problem in Bantry Bay, which is the invasive alien Japanese seaweed Sargassum muticum. When you do something to the environment like a clear felling, you leave it wide open to an invasive species and in this case the invasive species is already in the bay, nibbling at the edges,” she said.

The effect of a proposed salmon farm of approximately one million fish, now the subject of a suspended hearing by the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, is an additional environmental concern.

“We don’t think the cumulative effects are being taken into account adequately,” she said.

John O’ Sullivan agreed that mechanical harvesting might have a negative impact but only in the short term.

“Of course there is going to be adverse effects initially but is it significant in the longer term? Probably not. We are not affecting crustaceans, so the only question is will there be re-growth in the areas we harvest,” he said.

His methods will be watched closely by coastal communities further north, where the largest seaweed processor in Ireland, Arramara Teo, is seeking harvesting licences along 20%of the coastline stretching from north Clare to north Mayo.

The company, bought by a Canadian marine biotechnology company in 2014, has purchased seaweed from hand-harvesters in Connemara and Mayo for the past 60 years.

John Connolly from Lettermullen in Co Galway has been cutting seaweed by hand in the traditional methods all his life. He’s seen a sharp rise in seaweed harvesting by hand on the shoreline in recent years. “It’s not a worry as long as it’s not pulled off the rocks.”

“But we don’t want mechanical harvesting here in Galway Bay. It will damage the seashore and the environment and we won’t see that happening here, we have our own methods to do it,” he said.


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