Local fears overshadow Bantry Bay kelp harvesting project

BioAtlantis is licenced to mechanically harvest kelp around the Bantry Bay area. However, despite the fiscal and employment potential and despite assurances from the company, considerable local concern remains about the impact on wildlife, livelihoods and the environment, writes Noel Baker.

Niall MacAllistair owner of the West Cork Sailing and Powerboating Centre at Adrigole, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

YOU can’t put a price on memories — especially those on a bucket list.

Niall MacAllister, who has been sailing boats longer than he cares to admit, describes the loop taken around the Beara Peninsula on a recent trip, the eye-popping scenery, the dolphins and seals, and the ebb of the waves underneath Jessy of Adrigole, the vessel hired out to groups which allow for ocean journeys.

He doesn’t go into the details, but this recent trip was to create memories for a family that has had some bad times of late. The sailing outing was an exercise in pure joy, a chance to revel in the surroundings in this part of the world, where the water and the mountains collide.

“As you can see, we have a pristine environment, a beautiful environment,” he says. “It’s unique, with the mountains running all the way down to the sea.”

He says it is out of concern for this environment that he is among those voicing opposition to the granting of a licence to Tralee-based company BioAtlantis to harvest kelp along the coast not too far from his base in Adrigole.

His office, located on the small pier down from the local GAA pitch, has a small printed poster in the window: “No kelp mining”.

Directly opposite is Hungry Hill, a cloud-topped peak jutting out from the Caha Mountains, and below that again the bowl-shaped Adrigole Bay. Seals loll on the rocks in the bay. Niall says they are a big draw for foreign visitors, as are some of the bird life which he feels we take for granted but whose presence delights continental visitors.

Seals in the bay where Niall MacAllistair runs the West Cork Sailing and Powerboating Centre at Adrigole, Co Cork.

His concern is that the friendly seals and the guillemots and the oyster catchers, with their long orange beaks, might start to move away if the kelp harvesting project begins.

“I only heard about it in January this year, he says of the BioAtlantis plan.

“The licence was granted in 2014, yet it is going to directly affect me. Instantly, your concerns are raised.”

As will be explained, BioAtlantis followed the application process to the letter, but for Niall and others, the process — or lack thereof — was the problem.

“Certainly, that was our concern — that there was not a big open platform where you could put your hand up and say ‘what if...’ It’s put to him that maybe it won’t turn out as bad as some people fear. “Maybe it won’t,” he replies.

“But if it is, who picks up the tab?”

Licence application

The overall area licensed is around 1,800 acres, although BioAtlantis emphasise that the area to be harvested per annum is 25% of this, around 454 acres per annum of which less than 40% contains kelp.

It maintains that less than 200 acres will be harvested annually, which corresponds to just 0.3% of the total marine area of the bay which will be harvested in a year. In practice, BioAtlantis will operate one 21-metre boat in deep open waters. It says no marine areas will be cordoned off and areas where BioAtlantis operate will be available to everyone else in the bay.

The CEO of BioAtlantis Ltd, John T O’Sullivan also said that it would take every measure required to adhere to environmental standards.

John T O’Sullivan, CEO of BioAtlantis, which has a licence to mechanically harvest kelp in Bantry Bay. It was the first such licence granted in Britain and Ireland.

John founded the biotechnology company in 2004, having previously worked in Golden Vale, Kerry Ingredients and Kerry Algae.

He was of the opinion there were compounds in seaweed that could work as nutraceuticals, which can improve the health of the plant, animal and human by improving their defence, immunity and microbiota.

BioAtlantis employs 62 people at a factory in Kanturk, Co Cork and at its head office and labs in Tralee.

According to O’Sullivan: “The vision is to become a global leader in nutraceutical and biostimulant technology by 2030 and to become a major employer along the western seaboard.

“The aim is to create a new biotechnology industry in the south west of Ireland based on renewable marine resources,” he says.

“The concept is not much different to how the dairy industry started in Ireland in the 1960’s and 70’s. If indigenous companies had not developed in Ireland at this time, the dairy industry would now be controlled by foreign multinationals.”

He is bullish about future plans. “BioAtlantis intends to lead rather than follow but all the science and research will be wasted and the benefits will go abroad if we cannot harvest the resource in Ireland.

“It makes no sense to be located in Ireland unless we can access the seaweed. The licence and the ability to harvest is a key component to the company’s long-term development. Therefore, it is in our interest more than anyone else to harvest in a sustainable manner.”

The company has also argued that harvesting kelp is not a new industry. John O’Sullivan says kelp has been mechanically harvested since the seventies in France and Norway, although in France a scoubidou — which is a form of a hook that turns around itself and uproots the kelp — is used. In Norway, a kelp dredge, similar to a garden rake, is used, but he stresses that BioAtlantis do not propose to use either of these two systems.

“We do not touch the seabed when harvesting,” he says. “We plan to use a mower suspended from the boat which will not cut below 25 cm or 12 inches. This will allow us to cut the older weed, allowing younger plants to ?ourish as they will have more access to sunlight. The kelp will be cut in strips but an unharvested area will be left between the strips. The spores from the unharvested area will have space to land, ?nd a foothold and commence growth. Every peer reviewed scientific study shows that kelp recovers within three to six years after mechanical harvesting.”

One reason put forward for the discontent is what is perceived by some as a lack of public consultation and advance notice.

An advertisement was first carried in The Southern Star on December 12, 2009, regarding the application by BioAtlantis for the foreshore licence, running until January 15 of the following year. The company points out that no submissions on the application were received from the public. But many of the people with concerns over the plan claim they simply did not know enough, early enough, to allay their fears.

John O’Sullivan sees it differently: “We disagree with the viewpoint that there was not full public consultation. In 2004, a study was undertaken by an expert group to provide an overview of kelp research, harvesting techniques and resource management in other European countries. On this basis, a series of recommendations were made for the development of sustainable mechanical harvesting of kelp in Ireland.”

These recommendations included that frequent monitoring programmes to assess the environmental impact of mechanical kelp harvesting should be established as part of the management scheme and that experimental harvesting areas should be enlarged and trials should be carried out for a longer time period until restoration of the harvested areas is fully completed.

BioAtlantis said eight different bodies with specialists in the area assessed the application. including the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the Dept of the Environment, the Marine Survey Office, and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority.

“The Marine Licence Vetting Committee (MLVC) assessed the application and concluded that subject to compliance with specific conditions harvesting was unlikely to have a significant negative impact on the marine environment,” Mr O’Sullivan says. “The decision to grant a license obtained cross party political support as the licence was approved in principle by Minister Gormley of the Green Party in 2011, who were in Government with Fianna Fail, signed off by Minister Kelly of the Labour party in 2014, who were in government with Fine Gael.”

And yet there has been political opposition, including from local Independent TD Michael Collins and Sinn Fein MEP Liadh Ni Riada. But as John O’Sullivan argues: “If there were other requirements in relation to consultation then BioAtlantis would have complied with these also. How can someone say there was a lack of consultation in this license application when we had to consult with all the above bodies?”

The company met with Cork County Council on June 12 last and described the meeting as “positive” and John O’Sullivan said: “We have found that most politicians are supportive of our licence, particularly those who are interested in developing indigenous Irish SMEs and creating sustainable employment in rural Ireland. It is important to note that the decision to grant a license obtained cross party political support.”

As for an online petition which has garnered around 7,000 signatures opposing the plan, he says: “People have the right to sign petitions but it would be interesting to know whether they are aware of the facts.”

Opposition

An article reporting on the impact of kelp cutting in Bantry Bay that was published in the ‘Irish Examiner’, Saturday, April 22, 2017.

Deirdre Fitzgerald is an ex-public servant and former HSE manager and among those to voice concerns over the kelp harvesting plan. A local woman, she loves the area, is an avid photographer and is passionate about the environment. She too stresses that her issues are not with BioAtlantis, but rather the manner in which the company came to this point. “It’s a government issue,” she says, stating that the case may have highlighted problems with how the licensing system operates.

While stating that BioAtlantis fulfilled all that was expected of them, she does not believe there was sufficient public consultation: “The people of Bantry Bay were not consulted nor will they benefit from this large- scale mechanical harvest of kelp in Bantry Bay.

“We feel aggrieved that we as a community were not afforded the opportunity to be part of the consultation process. At the very least, we request that the Government who issued this licence, pause the proposed harvesting and at the very least engage with the people who will be directly affected.

“We would also ask the Government to re-examine why an independent environmental impact assessment. or independent monitoring programme is not in place for such a large-scale industry.”

Indeed, she feels the Government could, if it so desired, have invoked the Aarhus Convention regarding the level of public consultation required for a project of this type.

Citing census returns showing population falls in coastal and rural areas, she believes there is scope for a hand harvesting operation for kelp in the area which, with its expertise and resources, could be managed by BioAtlantis.

For her, kelp isn’t just one aspect of underwater life, but a key link in the chain. “It’s a food web,” she says. “The kelp beds forms the base of the food web.”

Despite the continued assertions from BioAtlantis that all steps will be taken to harvest kelp in a safe and sustainable manner, too much of the process seems experimental in her view. And if there are so many variables, she contends, why begin with such a large surface area, and with what seems to her and others, limited external monitoring and oversight?

“Why are we not working with the communities whilst respecting the environment and hand-harvesting seaweeds in a sustainable manner? These seaweeds could then be dried and processed locally, to value added products for sale in Ireland or for export, thus preserving the environment and creating job opportunities in various rural areas around our coastal communities. This industry has been quoted as being valued at €3bn per annum to the Irish economy.”

It’s understood that €3bn estimate dates back to when Frank Fahey was the minister in charge — much has happened since then, although it has been argued that the damage wrought to seaweed near Japan by the Fukushima nuclear disaster could have increased the value of our bountiful supply of seaweed.

According to John O’Sullivan: “We do not have an estimate. €3bn is a hypothetical figure and means nothing unless companies can harvest the resource.”

The public perception of how Government has utilised and handled our natural resources is not exactly glowing. In the last year there has been renewed focus on issues within the fishing industry, as highlighted by the Atlantic documentary. People recall only too well the wrangling over Shell off the Co Mayo coast. In and around Bantry, there has been vocal opposition to fish farming. More recently, there was some disquiet over the sale of Arramara, a seaweed enterprise founded in 1947.

John O’Sullivan says of this: “BioAtlantis placed a substantial bid of €5.7 million for Arramara. However, Údaras na Gaeltachta sold Arramara to a Canadian company (Acadian) for an undisclosed sum which is now subject to a 10-year confidentiality agreement. We disagreed with the decision by Údaras to sell Arramara to Acadian.”

Some of those who have voiced opposition to the plan are stunned that parts of the bay are not designated as special areas of conservation (SAC) or a special protection area (SPA).

According to Niall MacAllister: “Maybe we should have applied for an SAC 10, 20 years ago. Maybe we missed that.”

But he adds: “Should we be living in a society where we must always be thinking of protecting things?”

BioAtlantis initially applied for a licence in Kenmare Bay initially, but John O’Sullivan said it was subsequently advised to apply for a licence in a non-SAC area and Bantry Bay was chosen “as it contains a renewable kelp resource which can be harvested mechanically on a sustainable basis”.

Kieran O’Shea is a commercial fisherman and is also involved in operating a ferry service to Garnish Island. His concerns regarding the scheme are based on the potential impact he believes it could have on lobster and shrimp fishing.

“It is going to impact us severely,” he said. “It’s like if you remove the kelp from the bottom of sea you are going to be removing a vital resource for lobster and shrimp that thrive in the kelp. Our families have been fishing for many, many generations and it’s only around kelp and seaweed that you’ll get lobsters and shrimps.”

He takes on board the company’s argument that the kelp will regenerate, but adds: “Our question is, what are they [the fish] going to do in the meantime? They won’t survive without it [kelp].

“We have been involved in preserving the supply of shrimp and lobster and we do see in the last year or two huge numbers of juvenile lobsters returning to the area, so there will be fish for future generations down the line.

“We are trying to conserve the stocks to ensure there will be a livelihood for everyone. I am third generation and I want to ensure they are there for my family and their family again.”

This is the emotive space into which BioAtlantis must navigate its plan. Kieran O’Shea remarks that records show commercial fishing in Bantry Bay as far back as the mid-1800s. Small inshore fishermen are trying to earn a living from the sea and yet the first many heard about the plan appears to have been an Eco Eye programme screened on RTÉ. As it happens, BioAtlantis took umbrage with how the issue was referred to in that programme, with John O’Sullivan claiming the programme was “poorly researched” and that it alluded to felling kelp forests that were untouched for centuries.

“In fact,” he argues, “the age of the kelp in Bantry Bay is 3.5 years.” As far as he is concerned, Eco Eye was “deficient in terms of robust fact-checking”. BioAtlantis have lodged a complaint to the BAI in relation to the programme. The company has also criticised some other media coverage of the issue, including in the Irish Examiner.

In addition, the company takes issue with the use of the term ‘kelp forests’. “The description of kelp as a ‘forest’ is inaccurate as it gives the impression of something old and covered with trees,” he says. “This is not true. Kelp is a type of algae/seaweed, it is not a type of tree. It grows quickly unlike a tree and has a short generation time of three-to-five years.”

Kieran O’Shea says no one is claiming BioAtlantis has done anything wrong, but that the system itself is flawed.

“We are a fishing family and we are going to be directly affected by it. There needs to be certain reassurances that everything is going to be ok. We need to be ensuring sustainability right into future generations.

“People directly affected should be notified directly before a licence is granted.

“I am a commercial fisherman out there every day. For us, if you remove kelp, and seaweed, and you are left with a bare rock, and we have left pots in those areas, you will get nothing. It’s like putting fish out in the middle for the road. You will get nothing.”

Yet, John O’Sullivan has a different perspective. He says crustaceans such as lobster, shrimp and crab require habitat where kelp does not grow — soft bottom areas and rocky shores where there is no kelp. He claims they are highly unlikely to be affected by harvesting. He also asserts that of the more than 110 species of fish of commercial relevance in Ireland, most primarily occupy areas where kelp does not grow and none are reliant on kelp. As for fears associated with harbour seals, he says their main areas for gathering in Bantry Bay are Glengarriff harbour, Ardrigole harbour, and sites near to Coolieragh harbour and Whiddy Island, areas in which he says BioAtlantis will not operate.

Regarding other possible dangers, he said the main threat to otter is pollution, and since the company will be operating one boat it will not cause any pollution, nor will it deliberately approach or behave in an obtrusive or noisy manner around otters. He also denies the likelihood of any impact on wildlife such as choughs (birds) , white-tailed eagles, dolphins and whales, fulmar seabirds or basking sharks, mainly because the BioAtlantis vessel will not be encountering any of these animals.

Another issue raised by some of those opposed to the project is the fact that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was not conducted. As John O’Sullivan explains, it wasn’t necessary as the area is not within a Natura 2000 site, is not of a class set out in Annex I of the habitats directive. Nor does it fall into Annex II of the same directive.

“The Marine Licence Vetting Committee (MLVC) assessed the application and concluded that subject to compliance with specific conditions, harvesting was unlikely to have a significant negative impact on the marine environment,” he says.

One condition of the licence was that an independent expert conduct a baseline underwater ecology survey prior to harvesting. It was conducted by personnel from the School of Biology and Environmental Science in University College Dublin and MERC Environmental Consultants for BioAtlantis from September 5 to 16 last year. The survey will be repeated in year three and five, post-harvesting. John O’Sullivan said the baseline report is currently being reviewed by the department and will be published shortly.

However, Deirdre Fitzgerald received the baseline report under Freedom of Information and believes it is inadequate. One observation was that the survey only took place for 11 days and so misses both the bird breeding season and the main wintering season. Another criticism was that there was no mention of whether the species recorded were resting or foraging, and that recording information within 50m of the vessel is too small a survey area, in a situation where a survey from land would have been more suitable. According to Deirdre, the report also made no mention of the potential impacts of development on seals and cetaceans (marine mammals). She, and others, also queried why the area does not fall within the Natura 2000.

However, BioAtlantis has robustly defended the survey and process surrounding it. “It is not true to conclude that the survey is inadequate,” John O’Sullivan says. “The survey was undertaken in accordance with the agreed monitoring programme. The agreed monitoring programme was developed over years of consultations with ecology experts and experts in relevant governmental departments and agencies.”

Yet another issue was the possibility that the harvesting operation could disturb — or worse — marine archaeological sites. Bantry town displays a huge anchor in its main square as just one of a number of relics plucked from the sea over the decades and centuries.

Bantry native Tomás O’Sullivan completed a PhD in historical theology at Saint Louis University and joined the theology faculty there in 2011 before more recently returning home. Last June he outlined his concerns regarding the potential for shipwrecks in the Bantry Bay area to be compromised by the kelp harvesting plan and pointed out that the Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland, which is linked to the National Monuments Service, had 168 records of wrecks or potential wrecks in Bantry Bay.

According to John O’Sullivan: “BioAtlantis liaised with the underwater archaeology unit in 2009 and identified sites and shipwrecks of relevance. The majority of shipwrecks were located outside the licence area. We omitted Lonehort harbour from the application to ensure that there would be no impacts with sites at this location. BioAtlantis have obtained an updated list of potential sites from the underwater archaeology unit and have mitigated accordingly to ensure there are no impacts. In particular, BioAtlantis will be employing technology that ensures no physical impacts with the seabed or any underwater wreckages.”

But Tomás O’Sullivan argued that at the time of the involvement of the underwater archaeology unit there were no records of any wrecks within the proposed licence areas. He maintains there is documentary evidence of 17 wrecks within the licence area, only three of which are recorded in the Shipwrecks Inventory.

He also claimed that there was evidence of at least 10 wrecks over a century old in or around Carrigavaddra Perch not yet recorded in the inventory.

He cited a number of sources for all this, including Donal Boland’s Archaeological Survey Report. “To put it simply: we don’t know the exact location of any of these wrecks, nor do we know how much of the wreck still survives,” he says. “But this is precisely because we are dependent here on documentary sources, over 100 years old, as opposed to contemporary examination or excavation of underwater sites. Neither ships nor witnesses had easy access to accurate means of geolocation, so their descriptions of wreck sites are always vague: ‘off the Roancarrig rocks’; ‘east of Greenane rock’; etc.”

He says there is a chance of “inadvertent encounters” and added: “While I am confident BioAtlantis has no intention or desire to impact or damage any wreck, we will be entirely dependent on their new technology functioning fully as intended should any wreck site be encountered inadvertently during harvesting.”

Assurances

Kelp, a form of seaweed.

The Department of Housing and Planning, meanwhile, has sought to provide some assurances regarding the project, and a spokesman said that it had requested more information from BioAtlantis prior to approving the baseline study.

“A report containing the outcome of a baseline study within the licence area was submitted to this department for our consideration,” the spokesman said.

“This department and Inland Fisheries Ireland examined the report and have asked the licensee to carry out some further work.”

BioAtlantis confirmed that data is being prepared and will be submitted to the department in due course, along with additional information.

As for issues over monitoring, the department said: “Criteria in relation to monitoring of harvesting was considered as part of the overall assessment of the licence application.

“Accordingly, as a condition of the licence, the licensee must undertake a monitoring programme over the lifetime of the licence. The monitoring programme includes comparisons between harvested and non-harvested areas in each zone for density and height of kelp together with quantitative measurements of flora and fauna prior to commencement of harvesting and in years 3 and 5 for the 15 areas within each zone.

“BioAtlantis has engaged an external consultant to carry out the monitoring programme on its behalf and they are required to furnish a report with the results of the monitoring programme to this department.

“Once received, this department will consult with Inland Fisheries Ireland for their assistance in considering the report and interpreting its results.

“The licensee is also required to provide harvesting details to the Department on an annual basis to include the exact location and volume harvested. While the client is required to self- monitor, the Department will still have responsibility for ensuring that the licensee complies with both the conditions of the lease and all Irish and EU environmental legislation and is free to undertake any steps necessary to ensure that the harvesting does not have significant negative effects on the environment.”

The department also said it was addressing changes required to the Foreshore Act 1933, as amended, by way of the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill, and that “the changes envisaged... an alignment of the terrestrial and foreshore consent systems”.

Hopes and fears

Niall McAllister, meanwhile, is busy these days, in what is effectively the high point of his six-week season. At the peak of the Celtic Tiger years, it was a very different operation. In 2006 and 2007 he had 52 boats and could get 116 people out on the water. They were fully booked up for July and August those years, to the extent where they were turning people away. The business had 24 employees. Then the crash came.

“In May 2008, I had three people booked in,” he says. “The previous year the business had turned an annual profit for the first time, yet he’s sanguine about all that. As he sees it, the reason he moved here having worked in various other parts of the world is the reason he’s staying — the beauty of the surroundings and the lifestyle it offers: “My argument is that there is potential here for small scale industry, organic farming and fish farming, with the coastal resources that we have.

A mussel farm in the bay where Niall MacAllistair runs the West Cork Sailing and Powerboating Centre at Adrigole, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

“They are made up of individual families. They don’t expect a return, they just want to live in a nice area. The Beara Peninsula can offer that lifestyle. There is always a trade-off between large scale and small scale industry. But are we losing quality of life?”

Those opposed to the plan have claimed that as many as 50 inshore fishing jobs could be under threat if the plan goes ahead, yet John O’Sullivan believes there is no empirical evidence for that claim and believes, on the contrary: “There is a whole range of potential opportunities for BioAtlantis to supply other potential businesses with raw material. This can lead to offshoot for other industries to develop in the locality and create complementary products. For example, this could include tourism, food and drink related businesses (seaweed baths, spa treatments, thalassotherapy, artisan food and drinks, cosmetics and local seaweed produce on offer in restaurants/shops for tourists).

“It is highly unlikely that tourism will be affected. BioAtlantis operate one 21 meter boat in deep open waters. Harvesting will only be done on 0.3% of the bay annually and the area in which we are harvesting is available to everyone else in the bay.”

According to John O’Sullivan: “BioAtlantis’s objective is to grow rapidly and create jobs in rural areas.”

He believes once harvesting begins there could be full-time employment immediately for two or three people in the area, with 10 to 20 new jobs in Tralee. “However, having access to raw material is the limiting factor to our growth. By harvesting kelp sustainably we can expand and create new, well-paid jobs in rural Ireland which can be sustained long term into the future.”

As for the idea of hand harvesting, he says: “Kelp mainly grows in deep waters of 3-30 meters and as such, can only be accessed by boat. However, BioAtlantis would be interested in supporting local hand harvesters of other seaweeds in Bantry Bay and purchasing from them, if this can be done sustainably.”

And then the issue of when it will all start. According to John O’Sullivan: “There was no fixed commencement date and we are not ready to start yet.”

The concern of Niall McAllister and others really boils down to the known unknowns, the ‘what if’s. What if harvesting the kelp does affect the chain of marine life that could ultimately impact on the land above and below the water line and in doing so, undermine and affect livelihoods? The company has provided assurances, but still the nerves are jangling.

“The answer to that is we don’t know,” Niall McAllister says. “Take the worst- case scenario and I lose the seals, I go belly up and Kieran has no fish — who picks up the tab? What happens then?”

He accepts that some people are in favour of the plan going ahead. What might he do if and when the harvesting begins?

“I really don’t know the answer to that. Do I throw in the towel and move somewhere else?”

So many questions, to which only time and the tides have the answer.


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