A 10-year trial licence to cut the large brown seaweed or kelp forest was issued by the Department of Planning to Tralee-based BioAtlantis in 2010 and is due to begin in the coming months.
According to Deirdre Fitzgerald of Bantry Bay — Protect our Native Kelp Forest, the project, which includes sections of the shorelines of the Beara and Sheep’s Head peninsulas in West Cork, is “on a scale not seen before in Irish or UK waters”.
An environmental impact assessment was not required as the kelp farm is under water off the coast and so is governed by the country’s foreshore legislation.
“Fishermen have expressed concern that marine life could be affected as the forests provide shelter for marine life and this could impact shellfish fishing,” he said.
“Also, like bogs and trees, kelp act as carbon stores absorbing carbon dioxide and so are a vital part of the ecosystem.”
Up to 3,300 people signed Ms Fitzgerald’s petition urging the minister to suspend the licence, and local TD Michael Collins has written to him outlining his concerns about the nature of the advertisement placed in local press during the application process which failed to mention the scale of the project.
BioAtlantis will use robot machinery to cut the kelp 25cm above its root structure. After three years of operations, a review will take place to see if the kelp has been damaged in the trial.
John T O’Sullivan of BioAtlantis said the project, which fully complied with all Inland Fisheries, Department of Environment, National Parks and Wildlife, and Marine Institute regulations, will create 58 jobs locally.
The Department of Housing and Planning confirmed the developers paid an “agreed licence fee [to the department] based on an assessment of the project by independent valuers”.
It would not reveal the exact sum paid as it was deemed “commercially sensitive and confidential”, though it did say “although the licence covers some 750 hectares, the harvest will be less than 200 hectares per annum”.
Mr O’Sullivan said a quality team will monitor the kelp forest at year three and five to ensure the breakthrough rotational cutting technology is not damaging the kelp.
He said while the project is big in UK/Irish terms, it was “minute” compared to operations in Norway, Iceland, and France, and “much less invasive”.
Mr O’Sullivan said a baseline study of the existing kelp forest, completed by Merck Environmental Sustainability and UCD, will be published in the coming weeks. He said that, due to the planned 25cm cutting process, marine life should not be harmed.
However, in a letter to Mr Coveney, Independent TD Michael Collins criticised the department for failing to give information on the development to Cork County Council so it could pass it on to the community as part of the 2010 Bantry Bay Charter which set up a framework for public consultation.
He also outlined how an advertisement in a local paper did not specify the scale of the mechanical operation.
“The application for a project of this scale should not be advertised with such vague details,” said Mr Collins.
“From the advertisement, it appeared that your department was only granting a license for someone to hand harvest a small amount of seaweed. Minister, you must accept that this is unacceptable.”
Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch Europe said that the country’s foreshore act is “totally against the spirit of the Aarhus Convention”, which lays down a set of basic rules to promote the involvement of citizens in environmental matters.
“There is no access to justice for a community concerned about a project that could result in ecological disaster,” she said.
“Kelp forests are vital carbon stores against climate change, they are a safe spot for marine life in a storm and they protect land from coastal erosion. At a minimum, we need a review of the proposed monitoring system as it is nowhere near frequent enough.”