Fish farm proposals – Coveney has to listen to objections

Irish Examiner Editorial – December 17, 2012

With questions hanging over the future of the wild Atlantic salmon, a big money-spinner for Irish tourism, few issues provoke more heated controversy than the operation of fish farms off Ireland’s coasts.

The impassioned nature of debate around this contentious topic was seen at the weekend when 200 people from all parts of the country gathered in the rain outside Marine Minister Simon Coveney’s constituency office in Carrigaline, Co Cork. Their protest was against a Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) proposal to locate giant salmon farms off the west coast.

Jobs, money, and environmental concerns already dominate debate on both sides of this argument. For BIM, the aim is to create 500 jobs at three super-sized deep-sea salmon farms, the first at Inis Oírr in the Aran Islands, each with an annual harvest capacity of 15,000 tonnes. Doubtless, the opening of the China market to salmon exports from Europe is an influential factor.

For the opponents of this development — anglers, fishing organisations, stakeholders, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and islanders — the fear is that if such projects go ahead they will make thousands of existing workers redundant in tourism, angling, and the shellfish industry.

Meanwhile, amid the ongoing battle of words, the survival of wild salmon is in question. Recently thought to have been “saved” from virtual extinction by the removal of drift nets, the Irish salmon is now believed to be at risk from hazards that include climate change, river and lake pollution, as well as alleged poaching and illegal drift netting off the Donegal coast.

Scientific research suggests that valuable salmon stocks off the west of Ireland are in danger of being decimated by a predicted explosion of sea lice, lethal parasites which invariably multiply around fish farms and are claimed to kill large numbers of free-ranging salmon in European waters every year.

According to BIM, the State agency responsible for developing the seafood industry, its handling of this project marks a “new departure” in planning terms. It will act as the licence applicant for all three farms, with the licences being held in trust for the State and commercial developers operating the business under a franchise agreement.

To give Mr Coveney credit, he signalled in advance that he would not be present to receive a petition from the protesters picketing his constituency office. However, he risks compromising his ministerial position as he is widely perceived as supporting the BIM project. Arguably, he could be accused of conflicting with the public interest if his department grants BIM the licence. With such a controversial decision in the balance, the Government will be in the firing line if jobs are put at risk in a region so heavily reliant on tourism.

It would be a travesty if objections to the BIM proposal were dismissed out of hand by the administration because of ministerial support for the venture. To bring transparency and objectivity to this heated dispute, there should be no question of matters being decided behind closed doors. The conflicting interests make it imperative that BIM’s plans for three giant salmon farms be scrutinised in the public gaze.