TWO of the country’s most influential food publishers have accused the Government of treating the West Cork coast like an “industrial estate” by allowing the commercial harvesting of 1,860 acres of native seaweed forest in Bantry Bay.
Food writers and authors of Ireland’s 100 Best Restaurants, John and Sally McKenna, have accused the Department of Housing and Planning of thinking “it appropriate that a few people make a lot of money out of seaweed, rather than many people making a little”.
“The sea and the shoreline are not a factory, you can’t treat them like an industrial estate. Once you apply the economic thinking of mass production to a natural resource, what you inevitably do is destroy it,” said Ms McKenna.
“This type of harvesting is experimental and gives no benefit to the communities who live by the coastline. Bulk harvesting also affects much more than local communities: all the species of life that shelter in this essential biosphere of our coastline are affected.”
She said “seaweed in its many guises has always been a feature of Irish agriculture” but was picked over the generations by those who “recognise by sight and pick sustainably by hand”.
“For many decades, the farming of Irish seaweed has provided a small income for many people, and these people have been guardians of the coastline. Now, however, the administration we have in place seems to think it appropriate that a few people make a lot of money out of seaweed, rather than many people making a little,” she added.
BioAtlantis, the biotechnology firm behind the project, has said it will use machinery to cut the kelp 25cm off its root structure so as to minimise damage to marine life such as shellfish. After three years of harvesting, a review will take place to see if the kelp quality has been damaged.
However, Minister for Housing and Planning Simon Coveney is being urged by locals, fishermen and environmentalists to reverse his department’s decision to grant the 10-year kelp-cutting licence to biotechnology company, BioAtlantis.
The BioAtlantis kelp harvesting project, which will take place in sections of the Beara and Sheep’s Head peninsulas, will be the biggest in Irish and UK waters but according to BioAtlantis is “minute” in comparison to projects in Norway, France and Iceland.
According to BioAtlantis CEO, John T O’Sullivan it “is based on best scientific” knowledge and a 2004 study on kelp-harvesting methods and sustainable resource management completed by NUI Galway and funded by the Marine Institute and Taighde Mara Teo.
However, chairman of Glengarriff Tourist and Development Association, Chris Harrington, said tens of thousands of tourists flock to Bantry Bay every year to see Garnish Island, the bay’s 300 seals, seabirds, dolphins and more recently, two white-tailed sea eagles and their chick.
“The seals, eagles and the wider wildlife all feed on the fish and marine life that shelter in that kelp. The environment in Bantry Bay is a major part of the tourism industry here and tourism provides a lot of jobs in this region yet there was no public consultation with us about a project of a scale that could potentially harm this ecosystem,” said Mr Harrington.
Niall McAllister runs Wild Atlantic Wildlife and the West Cork Sailing and Powerboating Centre in Adrigole in Bantry. He said Bantry Bay’s seals are a huge attraction for his customers too and that these “seals feed on the marine life spawns in the kelp forest”.
He said crustaceans, jellyfish and starfish shelter in the kelp while juvenile fish often linger there to protect themselves as they grow stronger. He said puffins and other seabirds also feed on this fish.
“If we reduce this spawning ground, we remove fish for the seals and seabirds,” he said.
Mr McAllister said the planned project is “right on his doorstep” yet “nobody knocked on my door or bothered to send an email”.
“The big fear is we don’t know what damage could be done. They are using a bay that I routinely hear tourists describe as ‘out of this world’ as a test ground. Unbelieveable,” he said.
BioAtlantis says an independent expert in marine ecology will conduct a series of underwater ecological surveys at the site before harvesting, and three and five years post-harvesting.
“This will provide a means of identifying any potential effects of harvesting and will provide further scientific information which will be used to inform decision- making in Ireland in the future,” said Mr O’Sullivan.
He also said the seaweed will recover four years after harvesting.
“BioAtlantis had many reasons for not calling a public meeting at that time as there were many issues that needed to be resolved including engaging with recognised experts in marine ecology in Ireland; a legal agreement in relation to the lease; agreeing a harvesting plan with the Department of Environment; building a harvesting vessel; design and commissioning the harvesting equipment; and the completion of a baseline study in advance of commencing harvesting.”