The drowned river valleys that make up Bantry Bay on the southwest coast of Ireland form one of the longest and widest natural harbors in the country. With a length of twenty-two miles and a width of six miles at its widest point, the island-studded bay is ringed by several picturesque villages, towns, and fishing ports.
For many people living here, Bantry Bay’s natural beauty, plentiful fish stocks, and pristine waters provide an income through industries such as inshore fishing, shellfish farming, and tourism. However, an ongoing controversy is evolving in this tranquil corner of rural Ireland over one Irish company’s plans to harvest another natural resource from the foreshore, the seashore area between high and low tide water marks, here — native Laminaria digitata and Laminaria hyperborea kelp.
“We are worried that if you take out the kelp from the bay you could effect the whole food chain here and no one knows what the effects could be,” says Catherine Horgan, a local resident and spokesperson for the anti-kelp harvesting group Bantry Bay Protect Our Native Kelp Forest. “Harvesting the kelp here could affect everybody from the people making their living catching and processing fish from the Bay, who support local shops and other industries, to people working with the tourists coming here because of the high water quality.”
Like many people living in the areas surrounding Bantry Bay, Horgan is concerned about plans by BioAtlantis Ltd, an Irish Biotech Company, to harvest Bantry Bay’s wild kelp using mechanical means. The Bantry Bay Kelp Forest group was formed to voice local concerns about potential ecological and economic damage that could result from mechanically harvesting kelp in Bantry Bay. Mechanized seaweed harvesting differs from traditional seaweed harvesting in that it involves using boat borne machinery, instead of hand tools, to cut and collect much larger quantities of seaweed living below the low tide line rather than along the shore. Using this method to harvest wild seaweeds growing along an uneven seabed has the potential to also remove a greater section of each seaweed (damaging their ability to regrow) as well as to damage other aspects of the native ecosystem that are present in harvested areas.
Wild kelp is a vital part of coastal ecosystems in cold water environments, and performs a range of ecosystem functions, from minimizing coastal erosion to providing habitat, spawning grounds, and a source of food for many marine species, including invertebrates (such as crabs and shellfish) as well as fish and marine mammals like sea otters. Horgan says her most pressing concerns — one shared by many other local residents — are unforeseen ecological impacts from the removal of kelp from the bay.“The bay doesn’t need another extractive industry that could potentially have huge negative effects,” she says.
Wild seaweeds, including some species of kelp, have been harvested by hand in Ireland for millennia, but now form the basis of a fast-growing industry worth around 35 million dollars per year. Many fear that the industry, traditionally small scale and dominated by local producers using hand-held tools to remove seaweed from beaches during low tide, is on the brink of major change, a fear that was further fueled by the sale of the Irish national seaweed harvesting company to Canadian company Arcadia in 2016.
For BioAtlantis, which specializes in seaweed derived animal and plant nutrition products, securing a reliable and traceable source of raw seaweed near the company’s home base in the town of Tralee, a couple of hours drive north from Bantry, is key to growing their business. They are adamant that harvesting kelp from Bantry Bay is both ecologically sustainable and vital to securing long-term employment in Bantry and at their headquarters in Tralee.
BioAtlantis began the lengthy process of applying for a license to harvest kelp from 1,800 acres of foreshore in Bantry Bay in 2009. Their application was to use a specially designed boat, equipped with a seaweed harvesting mower, to mechanically cut and collect the fronds (leaves) and stipes (stems) of kelp plants to within a set distance of the plants’ base — known as a “hold fast.” They claim that by ensuring enough of the kelp plants’ stipe is left uncut and only a set percentage of the bay’s plants are cut each year, their method of harvesting is safe and sustainable in the long term. (Some mechanized harvesting operations in Scotland involve dredging the seafloor bottom and pulling kelp plants entirely from beds.)
With their license application initially approved by the Irish environmental ministry in 2014, BioAtlantis was given a final go ahead granted by the Irish government in December 2017 after confirmation from the European Union that kelp harvesting does not require an environmental impact statement under EU law. This makes it the first instance of a license for mechanical seaweed harvesting being granted in Ireland.
Defending their plans to harvest kelp from Bantry Bay, research manager for BioAtlantis Dr. Kieran Guinan disputes the statements made by anti-kelp harvesting advocates. Responding to an email query regarding ecological concerns about the company’s plans, he writes “It is incorrect to refer to mechanical harvesting of kelp as being extractive,” adding that, if harvested properly, “kelp is a renewable resource which regenerates three to six years after mechanical harvesting and every peer reviewed paper published in Europe to date confirms this time frame.” Guinan also emphasizes that kelp harvesting will occur in just 0.3 percent of the total marine area of Bantry Bay per annum and that BioAtlantis will conduct ongoing ecological monitoring throughout the process.
Local opponents to harvesting, such as the Bantry Bay Kelp Forest Group, dispute these claims. They are particularly aggrieved by the licensing process and the fact that an environmental impact statement wasn’t required. The license granted to BioAtlantis in Bantry Bay covers the largest area ever licensed to one company for seaweed harvesting in Ireland, or in fact in the entire UK.
The situation in Bantry has been raised as an issue in both houses of the Irish parliament. Irish Green party senator Grace O’Sullivan has been particularly vocal in criticizing BioAtlantis’s plans to mechanically harvest kelp in Bantry Bay and is a staunch advocate for concerned residents. She is adamant that, while the letter of the law may have been followed, the company is not doing enough to prove that what they are planning is sustainable or good for the area.
O’Sullivan says that locals have not been provided with information about what’s happening in their community in a clear and timely manner, and that “some of the information that the company [BioAtlantis] has put out raises more questions than answers and the locals rightly want clear information on what’s happening in their area.” O’Sullivan is also bemused by how the only local information about, and chance to object to, BioAtlantis’s initial plans to apply for a license was a notification placed in a local news paper and an information sheet in one police station in Bantry town.
A lifelong marine activist and ecologist by training, O’Sullivan questions BioAtlantis’s claims that they will mechanically harvest just enough of the kelp plants to allow sustainable regrowth, “How can they ensure they will cut a set height over the very uneven bathymetry of the bay?” she asks. “If they were taking just the frond you could understand that, but they are cutting too close to the base of the kelp and it seems obvious that they will kill a lot more plants and cause far more damage than they say.”
While plans to harvest seaweed in Bantry Bay look like they are going ahead this month in spite of local concerns, opponents continue to challenge the plans. Dramatic protests — with seaweed loaded coffins — and an ongoing lawsuit challenges how the BioAtlantis license was granted, make clear that the debate over the future of Ireland’s seaweed industry is not over in Bantry, nor elsewhere in Ireland.
For Senator O’Sullivan, Bantry serves as an example of the growing need for Ireland to maintain the health of its surrounding ocean while distributing the profits of ocean wealth fairly among the people who live in coastal areas. Lamenting the situation in there, she says, “Nature has provided the island of Ireland with incredible natural wealth in kelp forests along our coasts and we need to protect it. Let’s look carefully at how this can be developed without local people feeling like something is being secretly imposed upon them as is happening here.”