18th December

Decision awaited on salmon farm licence

Inshore Ireland masthead

With completion in December of the Public Consultation phase for BIM’s proposed €60 million deep water salmon farm in Galway Bay, all eyes are now firmly on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine where Minister Coveney is faced with the unenviable task of having to decide whether or not to grant an aquaculture licence.

For those in the aquaculture industry, rejection of the application will be regarded as the death-knell for Ireland’s already ailing fin-fish farming sector, where annual production more or less flat-lined some years ago and has been on virtual life-support for some time - mainly as a result of tough but necessary EU environmental directives.

But a go-ahead from the Minister on the other hand will surely unleash a wave of anger from those opposed to salmon farming and who view this proposal in particular as a potential environmental disaster and a serious threat to angling tourism in the west of Ireland. There is no doubt that opposition to this licence ― and the other licences that BIM intends to apply for is building ― driven mainly by anglers and environmentalists, as well as some from the tourism sector.

Mounting awareness Hardly a day now passes without some mention of the Galway Bay project on radio or publication of a condemnatory letter in the national press. To its credit, BIM shows that it has learned much from how similar aquaculture projects were handled here in the past, and are managing to shepherd the entire information-sharing process with professionalism and textbook transparency.

Opponents too, for the most part, have so far largely avoided the ugly public scenes that too often tainted and eventually enveloped the anti-fish farming protests during the rod licence campaign two decades ago. Their fear is that a fish farm of the size proposed in this location will accelerate the already alarming decline of wild salmon stocks to eventual extinction.

Science must prevail Much of Minister Coveney’s attention over the coming weeks will be focused on the scientific findings relating to the parasitic sea louse from two key State Agencies: the Marine Institute and Inland Fisheries Ireland.

The Marine Institute finds that lice-induced mortalities in salmon are tiny - less than 1% of the overall marine mortality rate. Inland Fisheries Ireland however fears that the scale and location of this farm could lead to the extinction of the wild salmon population - and with it destroy an angling/tourism sector estimated to be worth more than €140 million a year.

While there’s no doubt that wild salmon stocks are in decline, such arguments must concentrate on undisputed scientific data – never on prejudice or sectoral self-interest.

During the early 1980s, salmon farming’s sudden, high visibility made it the obvious target of blame for what at the time was thought to be the demise of native sea trout populations in the west. Sea trout populations did not become extinct, and have since recovered; however the legacy of bitterness and mistrust between salmon farmers, anglers and some in media remains.

So, as this particular debate intensifies, the hope is it will remain civilised and respectful. All involved will have to learn to listen. Whatever his decision, Minister Coveney must be decisive in his pronouncement. 

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