Any publicly owned
resource (in this case, the ocean) that can have hundreds of acres
'licensed' to private interests means that large sections of that
resource are removed, at a stroke, from the use of any other person or
group. Mussel and oyster farms remove a swathe of both water surface
and seabed from access. For instance, someone could swim in a section
of Lough Swilly in the morning, others could scuba-dive or snorkel in
that same area in the afternoon, a sailboat could pass through enroute
to harbour in the evening, and at night, an inshore fisherman might put
down lobster or crab pots, dredge for scallops, or trawl for fish. Once
the Department of the Marine grants a 'licence' for it, and the
fish-farmer mounts nets and cages and lines and buoys, and anchors
ropes to the seabed, you have, in essence, created an ownership of a
heretofore 'unowned' resource.
Shellfish licences do
not need an Environmental Impact Assessment submitted with the licence
application. No qualified expert has to determine the long-term
environmental effects these sites, some of which cover more than 50
acres, might have.
Fish farmers do not
have to present any credentials or show any expertise in mariculture
techniques. Often, they over-farm their allotment, causing a drop in
growth rates, by placing too many lines in an area which cannot support
Shellfish farms employ
very few people. Many of the 25 sites currently applied for or
operating in Lough Swilly list 1 or 2 employees only.
For every 100 tons of
mussels, 700 tons of excretions are deposited on the seabed. Some
marine species thrive in this unbalanced marine environment ('super'
starfish, for example) but other species - many of them indigenous
shellfish - do not survive.
EU subsidies and Irish
tax concessions are available to holders of shellfish-farming licences.
This has led to some cases of abuse: having received the subsidies, the
licence-holders never actively farm their beds, leaving the site to
'Ireland of the litter'
is not only a roadside phenomenon - flotsam and jetsam from
ill-maintained shellfish farms is growing. Floating barrels, rusting
trestles, and drifting lines are a hazard to boaters and commercial
fishermen. At the very least, fouled propellers have led to hours of
lost time and money; at worst, it could lead to tragedy.
The barrels used to
designate mussel sites often number in excess of 60, each the size of a
large armchair. Drifting, they create a navigation hazard for other
boats, necessitate a large expenditure of time and effort for those who
drag them in, and despoil the beaches and rivers where they wash ashore.
Department of the
Marine officials, convinced that objections to shellfish farms are
primarily visual, have suggested that using gray, rather than blue,
barrels would be more aesthetically pleasing because they would 'blend
in' with the water. The logic of presenting an even less-visible
navigational hazard to unsuspecting boaters is questionable at best.
Maritime traffic is
expected to triple in the next two decades, according to the Naval
Lough Swilly is an area
of rich marine archaeology. Most recently, news coverage has been given
to an area where monastic fish-traps, dating from the 10th century, are
known to be on the sea bed close to the site of the Killydonnel Friary.
Some of the most recent shellfish-farming licences have been granted
right on top of this area, potential damage from dredging, anchors and
waste accumulation notwithstanding.
Despite Lough Swilly
having been declared a Special Area of Conservation under the EU
Habitats Directive, and a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds
Directive, 75% of the aquaculture applications that are within SACs
have been approved by Duchas, the Heritage Service, which is
responsible also for national parks and wildlife.
There are currently
registered EU complaints (and the EU has warned the Irish government)
about destruction of wild bird habitats in Special Protection Areas.
Lough Swilly has one of the most important SPAs for wild and migratory
fowl in Ireland. Shellfish farmers who grow only one or two species of
mussels or oysters impact directly on the number and variety of bird
species who will visit or inhabit an area. Aggressive culturing of
shellfish forces out indigenous types of mussels and oysters. In turn,
if you change the foods available to birds, some species will vacate or
not feed in that area.
Shellfish farms in
Mulroy Bay, among other sites in Ireland, have been closed several
times this year because of infection with various toxins carried by
algal blooms. These cause shellfish poisoning, some of it fatal. The
government has been forced to pay millions of pounds in compensation to
shellfish farmers, but there is no evidence of detailed research into
the causes of these outbreaks. In Scotland, it is widely believed that
algal blooms are related to the extra nutrients from nearby salmon
farms. No research has been conducted into the issue in Ireland.