FAVOURABLE beach-type weather last summer was enjoyed by the vast majority of people, but there was a hidden downside for many coastal communities.
One of the warmest years on record resulted in a late and extensive autumn bloom of the most common and harmful algal species, dynophysis— generally known as red tide.
In some shellfish-producing bays, the outbreak continue to create a crisis for the rope-grown mussel industry.
Restrictions on harvesting brought about by an extremely rare combination of natural events, especially red tide outbreaks, has created what Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) aquaculture executive Richie Flynn describes as a “perfect economic storm”.
“The year 2014 was remarkably good for growth and quality of mussels and a bumper year had been predicted until the red tides struck,” said Mr Flynn.
Around 200 people nationally are employed at more than two dozen companies involved in this important seafood crop, particularly in West Cork and Kerry.
However, as harvesting and the sale of mussels cannot take place, the sector is in crisis in early 2015.
Rope mussels are typically sold in late autumn, winter, and early spring to coincide with the most likely non-toxic period but some producers have not been able to harvest for 25 weeks.
Experts and industry agree the red tides will not clear until the mussels naturally spawn in March.
The crop, around 90% of which is exported, is worth €7m to the South-West alone, and mussels also serve as an important raw material for local seafood processors. The seasonal industry is also a vital employer in peripheral coastal areas where jobs are scarce.
However, it faces a serious situation and an application for a compensation package has been lodged with the office of Marine Minister Simon Coveney.
Mr Flynn said the EU has recognised the potential for closures to protect human health from natural toxic plankton blooms, by including provision for industry aid during prolonged closures.
Aid can be provided under the European Fisheries Fund (EFF) and the newly created European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).
The IFA is calling for compensation complying with EU regulations for all producers suffering closures.
“That would ensure the sector will remain viable and in a fit state to return to normal trading and job creation once harvesting begins again,” said Mr Flynn.
He suggested Mr Coveney’s department should ensure Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) is engaged to provide an independent report on the damage to the industry with a view to giving financial aid to those affected.
Beara peninsula producer John Harrington, based in Ardgroom, said people in the industry who did not have reserves were finding it difficult to survive. It was absolutely necessary, he said, to provide a compensation package based on 40% of earnings over a three-year period.
“December to February is the premium sales period for mussels and we’ve already lost two thirds of that, with more loses expected in March and April,” said Mr Harrington.
“The EU has recognised the compensation package as a foundation of the industry and the package is essential to keep producers ticking over and surviving into another season.”
According to latest BIM statistics, annual rope mussel production in the South-West amounts to 7,695 tonnes, broken down as follows: Dunmanus Bay, 303 tonnes; inner Bantry Bay, 3,823 tonnes; Glengarriff, 893 tonnes; Castletownbere, 1,096 tonnes; Ardgroom, 867 tonnes; Kilmacalogue (Kenmare), 713 tonnes.
Conditions were good for mussel-growing in the early part of 2014, and the Irish Shellfish Association estimates that, between them, most of the listed bays had a potential 10,000 tonnes for sale in the 2014-15 winter period if conditions allowed.
The fisheries department, meanwhile, confirmed tests by the Marine Institute showed the levels of bio-toxins in shellfish in a number of bays in the South-West, including Castlemaine, Bantry, and Kenmare, currently exceed the regulatory limits.
“This has resulted in temporary suspension of shellfish harvesting in these areas over recent months until such time as the bio-toxin levels return to normal naturally occurring background levels,” a spokeswoman said.
Mr Coveney confirmed that he had received a request from aquaculture industry representatives for a compensation package from either the existing EFF or the planned new EMFF for a number of enterprises which had experienced market interruptions.
Ireland’s current programme under the EFF makes no legal provision for compensation for bio-toxin events and is also scheduled to end this year.
However, a new operational programme is being drafted and is due to be presented for final public consultation this month.
The department spokeswoman said that the programme will provide for a range of investment measures eligible for EU co-funding and, in certain cases, for the possibility of compensation aid to aquaculture enterprises for bio-toxin events.