18th December

Allegations of misleading and false information surround salmon farm debate

Two formal complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman which could stall the planning process for a large salmon farm in Galway Bay have been slammed by the project’s promoter BIM as a “deliberate attempt designed to confuse the general public”.

The office confirmed to Inshore Ireland that it was dealing with two separate complaints by the Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) against two government departments. The complaints concern the parts played by both departments during a recent EU Commission investigation into sea lice and salmon farms.

9.5 farmed salmon debate

 “Complaints by the FIE in relation to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) are still open and on-going,” a spokeswoman for the office confirmed to Inshore Ireland.

 Suppressed information

FIE has accused the DAFM of ‘suppressing a report from Inland Fisheries Ireland which had been specifically requested by EU investigators, and denies its existence’. The FIE says the report in question ‘was highly critical of the defence of salmon farming and sea lice that the Department was making to the Commission’.

Its second complaint, against the DFA, is that it ‘failed to assign the responsibility for responding to the Commission to include Inland Fisheries Ireland, and instead made the DAFM the sole agency in charge of responding to the investigation.’

According to the FIE statement: ‘Assigning control of the response to the DAFM was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken house.’

This is the latest episode in what has become an increasingly fractious planning process for the BIM-proposed salmon farm and has exposed inter-departmental fault lines with scientists at DAFM and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (DCENR) disagreeing openly on the level of sea lice impact from farmed salmon on wild salmon populations.

War of words

In a press release (17/09), FIE claims that after Simon Coveney became Minister for Agriculture in June 2011, the DAFM and the DCENR engaged in a war of words via email over the results of a then unpublished manuscript whose authors included scientists from Inland Fisheries Ireland (under DCENR) and the Marine Institute (under DAFM).

Based on the Referee’s report of the manuscript, DAFM had serious doubts about the conclusions and did not want it to be published. The FIE quotes DAFM demanding of DCENR that ‘Transmission of your Department’s observations to the Commission would not only be misleading but would also cause confusion in the public mind regarding sea lice controls and possibly undermine the State’s regulatory system. For these reasons I would ask you to withdraw the formal observations of your Department and to support the observations supplied to the Commission by DAFM.’

Selected information

Inshore Ireland can reveal however that this is misleading, and represents only part of an internal email between two senior officers from both departments. The email (20/06/11) refers to the unpublished findings by a team of scientists from Inland Fisheries Ireland and the Marine Institute.

Emphasising that the ‘scientific paper’ in question ‘is in fact an unpublished manuscript which has not yet been accepted for publication in the form submitted’, DAFM draws attention to the fact that: ‘The report of the Referees in respect of the draft manuscript is quite forthright and contains serious criticisms of the text particularly in relation to the analyses and conclusions.

You will also note the Marine Institute’s comments regarding the text and also the use made of the document in the context of this policy area’. […] ‘it would seem clear that the formal observations supplied by your department on this matter are seriously in error’.

It continues: ‘In the circumstances, transmission of your Department’s observations to the Commission would not only be misleading but would also cause confusion in the public mind regarding sea lice controls and possibly undermine this State’s regulatory system.’

Civil-servant tension 

Further evidence of inter-departmental tensions emerges in a written communication (17/06/13) from the Marine Institute referring to the same manuscript, which notes:

‘The editor of the ICES Journal of Marine Science decided not to accept an earlier version of the unpublished manuscript.’ It continues:

‘The MI have serious reservations about the unpublished manuscript itself (based on the three referees’ criticisms) and on the way it has been circulated and referenced in its current format…. Three international referees have made significant criticisms about the unpublished manuscript, particularly in relation to the analyses and the conclusions.’

The Marine Institute adds that ‘It is not appropriate to circulate/quote and/or use an unpublished manuscript undergoing a scientific peer review process, particularly when it is used in a dialogue on a sensitive policy area’.

It concludes that ‘In order to protect the scientific reputation of the MI, […] the MI will withdraw forthwith from the unpublished manuscript’.

FIE responds

Invited to comment, Tony Lowes of the FIE denied there had been any intention by his organisation to mislead the public by selectively quoting from the DAFM email (which appears on the FIE’s own website) or deliberately withholding both the referee’s report and the MI’s reservations, from its website.

Speaking to Inshore Ireland he said the scientific paper was eventually published in 2012 and “the facts in it fully demolish the position the Marine Institute is taking, and you can quote me because that is the fact.

“You can go back through these peer-reviewed comments, and you can pick out bits and I can pick out bits but the fact is that the paper was published and it does show these mortality rates. To suggest in any way that we misrepresented things here is incorrect. It really is seriously incorrect.”

He added that “great play” was made in Brussels of the fact that the IFI paper was not peer reviewed:

“It’s obvious we can’t present every single document we have discovered,” he told Inshore Ireland.

“You are going up a real blind alley here because the IFI’s paper was in fact published in 2012 and is referred to by one of the referees as “the largest and most auspicious trials of its kind and the largest in the case of Ireland and the most compelling evidence to date for a significant protective effect in smolts treated with emamectin benzoate.”

Agency response

Invited to respond, Donal Maguire, Aquaculture Development Manager at BIM “accused” Friends of the Irish Environment of “deliberately selecting material to suit their cause”.

Inshore Ireland should be congratulated for not simply taking the selective quotation as supplied to them by FIE but followed this up to look at the entire track of the correspondence.”

He added it could be seen from reading the whole memo that rather than suppressing anything, “The DAFM was in fact saving the blushes of the DCENR because the material that it had been supplied was erroneous and sub-standard.

“In fact, the DAFM was not suppressing anything; they were doing their job as good civil servants should and saving Ireland from looking foolish in the eyes of the EU Environmental Directorate.”

Maguire added it was heartening to see that this has been done by Inshore Ireland when other “more august publications have fallen down on the job.Those journalists self-evidently failed to thoroughly investigate the facts and in so doing, published material that was misleading to the public.

“The approach by FIE is typical of their modus operandi which is to selectively take bits of unrelated information, join them together and then attempt to create a sensational story.

“This is most unfortunate because it leads to confusion in the public mind. It serves nobody, and it’s certainly of no help to the environment. It is yet another example of poor behaviour, deliberately designed to muddy the waters.”

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