Exploiting our marine resources: Bantry Bay kelp project questions unanswered

IT is difficult to imagine that the after-dinner, residents’ lounge conversation among any group involved in how our seas’ resources are managed, exploited or shared would be a cheery, celebratory affair. 

Commercial fishermen would complain about their tiny share of EU fish quotas. They may fret about Brexit and our capacity to protect fisheries from an emboldened, free-again British fleet. Inshore fishermen will say the 2006 ban on drift netting has not reversed the collapse in salmon populations but it has hit their incomes.

Oil and gas developers might outdo each other by comparing the years, if not decades, it took to get their projects up and running. They can, however, take comfort in the extremely favourable tax arrangements available to encourage investment. Promoters of aquaculture might be especially loud in their criticism of what they may see as a culture of obstruction and inordinate delay. Those opposed to the development of what they describe as “industrial scale” oyster farming in West Donegal are the latest community group fighting aquaculture projects. They say four new licences granted for their area means around 99 acres of shore will be covered by oyster cages and that that would destroy Braade strand.

They are joined by those opposed to a salmon farm at Shot Head in Bantry Bay by Norwegian company Marine Harvest. That company last week admitted that more than two-thirds of its Scottish salmon farms — it has more than 50 — broke statutory sea lice limits last year. Sea lice, their impact on wild fish and the ever-increasing use of chemicals to manage outbreaks are red-button issues dividing aquaculture and conservation interests.

There is a new actor on this stage — the Kerry-based bioengineering company, BioAtlantis. This company has, after five years of rigorous preparatory work, secured the first licence in Ireland or Britain to mechanically harvest seaweed. CEO John T O’Sullivan says they hope to start harvesting Bantry Bay’s kelp forests later this year.

The company assiduously met its obligations about announcing its intentions (see page 15), nevertheless it is fair to say that that process hardly exemplifies transparency. The company placed a notice in Bantry Garda Station for 21 days in December 2009 and put an advertisement in The Southern Star on December 12, 2009. The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government says a notification was placed in a national newspaper but no record can be found. It is not surprising that no public submissions were received following this low-level publicity. It must, however, be emphasised that BioAtlantis met all its legal obligations on notifications to the public. That they were so easily met poses questions for our planning process rather than the company.

There are growing concerns about the impact this project might have on the seashore in a bay that already hosts an oil terminal, extensive oyster farms and possibly a salmon farm. There are concerns too about the fact that Government seems happy to rely on the company to monitor the project. Questions have also been raised about what is effectively the privatisation of a national resource.

BioAtlantis have patented a product which it hopes will reduce the use of antibiotics in pig farming to help confront the escalating difficulties faced by pork producers. However, it runs the risk of being seen as another business exacting a toll on the environment to sustain meat production, an industry whose impact and traditions faces growing scrutiny.

In a world with a relentlessly growing population we need to produce more and more good food but that does not mean we can turn a blind eye to other issues. BioAtlantis has stringently observed the rules but that it has reached this point with so many questions unanswered, with so many concerns unsatisfied, shows the inadequacy of our regulatory and planning processes and explains the widespread public unease about these developments. We have some way to go before we can have confidence in this process. The public and those investing in these projects deserve better.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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