15th October

Sentinels of the sea

Monitoring and pollution prevention is essential to shellfish survival. Richie Flynn, IFA-Aquaculture, explains

Shellfish farmers are at the front line when it comes to natural or man-made problems in inshore waters. The success or failure of a shellfish business depends totally on the maintenance of a high quality of water in which to grow the animals.

This really sinks in when you realise that a shellfish farmer doesn’t feed his stock in the sense of all other types of livestock production, but rather the animals feed naturally by filtering microscopic plants and animals in the water column (plankton) and in doing so, expose themselves to any potentially harmful contaminants that might also be in the sea.


Safety factor
These contaminants can be created naturally by the plankton itself – the so-called red tides – or be introduced by man from pollution from shipwrecks, or waste from urban, industrial or agricultural sources on the land. Some of these contaminants can harm or even kill the shellfish themselves. Mostly, however, they will merely build up in the shellfish, without any outward sign, lurking for the unsuspecting consumer who will feel the ill effects. That’s why a combination of monitoring and pollution prevention is vital for Ireland’s €30 million shellfish business.

Ireland can be proud that it has the most comprehensive monitoring regime for contaminants in shellfish, which ensures that no shellfish reach the market that could possibly harm the consumer. A joint nationwide effort by industry, the Marine Institute, the Food Safety Authority and the marine dept ensures that on any given day there are samples either being collected, delivered, analysed and reported for all 84 production areas around the coast. What they’re monitoring is a combination of natural and man-made potential contaminants. Plankton blooms are carefully monitored using a suite of tests on a bi-weekly basis.

Class action
Potential land pollution is monitored monthly, and the results are fed into a system that then classifies the shellfish production area on the basis of its water quality. This classification system is used throughout Europe, and depending on whether you are A, B or C class (best to worst), you can either sell your shellfish directly to the consumer as a top quality product (A Class); have your market restricted to processing plants (B) or endure huge expense of purifying your product and selling at a much reduced price (C). So the quality of water really is a determining factor as to whether your business is going to survive or not, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that shellfish farmers take it so seriously.

Except in 2000, however. It must have surprised some people in power when shellfish farmers, through the IFA, began to demand that government address the problem of the erosion of A class waters in Ireland. The main cause of this erosion in quality appeared to be poor planning in coastal areas, a lack of maintenance and investment in waste water treatment plants and a lack of understanding on the part of local authorities of the importance of water quality for the shellfish sector.

Shellfish producers simply wanted the government to do its duty and enforce a 20-year-old law, The 1979 Protection of Shellfish Waters Directive, which had been largely ignored by successive administrations.

Frustrated after two years of getting nowhere, the IFA lodged a complaint with the EU in 2001 over Ireland’s failure to implement the Directive. This move was a resounding success in terms of bringing to light the delicate relationship between water quality and shellfish. It also served to put mussel, oyster and scallop producers amongst the ranks of those willing to stand up and defend the environment upon which they depended.

Peace brokering
The wheels of justice turn slowly, especially at EU level, but once two European Court judgments were brought against Ireland for failing to protect designated waters and failing to designate all waters with shellfish in the State, things began to move.

Pollution protection plans are now finally being put in place in 14 bays, and county councils are being educated on how to plan sensitively in shellfish areas. The industry now hopes that the various departments that have been forced to invest in the protection of our waters will not bear a grudge against shellfish producers for their action. It’s time for peace to break out, in the interests of the environment, consumers and the general health of our inshore waters.

Nevertheless, as we still see plans in some coastal areas to discharge leachate from landfill into the sea, or to site large housing estates or livestock marts on top of shellfish grounds without sufficient protection against potential pollution, it appears that we still may have some way to go.

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