18th December

Fish-farm application withdrawal could herald new era for wild salmon

Noel Carr, FISSTA

Carr

As our politicians lay out their stall for General Election of 2016, we must welcome the December 21 BIM press announcement it was withdrawing the application for a 15,000 tonnes open-sea system of over seventy-five net cages.

As FISSTA was the first to mobilise opposition to the plan in 2011, we take comfort from our ability to conduct another successful campaign, against the odds.

Success has many fathers but we are satisfied the body of opposition built up from the Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages marches of 2013, coupled with the legal notice served on Government last April ‘to immediately cease all considerations and actions to aprove the Galway Bay application’ was the final straw of objection that prompted the rethink.

By then, BIM’s application had become politically toxic in every sense of the word. The application was not making any progress due to weekly public outrage and had become an embarrassment internationally as we and our NGO colleagues raised it repeatedly at NASCO and EU meetings.

Moreover, it had become an impediment to BIM and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, over potential new licences such as Shot Head against which we have lodged an objection.

Battle won; war continues

While national headlines such as ‘Campaigners say BIM may submit smaller scale fish farm application for Galway Bay’ summed up our feelings that a small battle had been won, but that the war on wild salmon continues, as government policy plans a production level of 43,000 tonnes by 2023, as published in the National Seafood Strategy last June.

Of the ten licences chosen for the 15,000 salmon farms, Galway Bay had to be the first application, due to the proximity of underground fresh water supplies that no other location could provide.

The new limits were cited to convince us, the general public, that the ambitions of Minister Coveney and BIM were now moderated, and they would be applying for smaller salmon farming licences in future. But we remain on guard as a licence can now be approved for what is termed ‘standing stock/biomass’ or annual production.

(A standing stock/biomass licence means that the total fish weight - referred to as standing stock or biomass - is limited to a set figure and is a very different way of limiting a licence.)

Sadly, this does not mean that future salmon farms are going to be smaller. In many cases it may actually result in larger farms. For example, a 5,000 -7,000 tonne standing stock licence could result in a final production of 15,000 at least, to the detriment of the marine environment. The rearing process could now be manipulated to produce 3,000 tonnes of salmon every two months, which would potentially give an annual production of 18,000 tonnes.

Justified expenditure?

In reality, political effort along with considerable financial and human resources have been invested in the licence application which Minister Coveney announced in the summer of 2011. Later that year, he increased BIM’s current expenditure budget by €2m per annum, specifically for work on the ten new mega salmon farms.

This funding was taken from the capital expenditure budget which would have benefited Irish SMEs in the aquaculture industry.

The question now is: Should BIM be allowed to spend more taxpayer’s money on another application that could fail? While the buck must stop with the top line minister and An Taoiseach, they (and BIM) can claim they were following expert scientific advice from the Marine Institute.

As the Inisturk application is now being processed by BIM, I expect the Marine Institute will have no significant problems with it, just as they found none (not even escapee impact) with the Shot Head licence for Bantry Bay. The same I expect will be the case for sites as outlined in the strategic plan to develop major deep-water open net cages.

If this seems overly cynical, please consider the conflict of interest that is built into Ireland’s licensing system. Our clear objective now must be to convince a new Minister to sever the apparent conflict of interest link between the Marine Institute and the Fisheries Division of DAFM. Only then, will a new era in unfettered scientific research emerge – one that may end the squandering of State resources.

With fresh thinking from a new Minister, more productive options would be considered on their merits. Ireland could then become a world leader producing farmed fish in an environmentally-friendly way in land-based systems rather than making the same net cage mistakes again and again.

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