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Plans for Massive Salmon Farm in Ireland’s Galway Bay Run Into Troubled Waters

Environmentalists and local fishermen concerned that sea lice from farm will harm wild salmon and trout populations

Controversy surrounds plans for a huge offshore salmon farm near the Aran Islands — a set of three islands at the mouth of the Galway Bay, off Ireland's west coast.

Aran IslandsPhoto by Ivar Husevåg Døskeland/Flickr
A cliff on the largest of the Aran Islands:  Inis Mór. Critics of the proposed fish farm worry that the industrial scale of the development could hamper tourism, on which the Aran Islands are heavily dependent.

The project's backers say the over 1,000-acre farm will bring jobs to coastal communities, while helping to meet demand for salmon in a sustainable manner. But critics claim it threatens wild fish populations.

The Irish Sea Fisheries Board, a government agency, is planning to develop the salmon farm near Inis Oírr, the smallest of three Gaelic-speaking islands that are famous for their unique limestone geology, rare wildflowers, and ancient archaeology.The farm is slated to produce 15,000 tons of organic-certified salmon per year, more than doubling Ireland's production of farmed salmon.

But a coalition of environmentalists, anglers, and tourism-dependent businesses is fighting the project. They say the farm will provide a breeding ground for parasitic sea lice that could threaten wild salmon populations.

Environmental groups says that sea lice from salmon farms are one of the most significant threats facing wild salmon populations in Europe. Parasite infestations in fish farms, where thousands of fish are stocked in small netted areas all year round, is known to significantly increase the number of lice in surrounding waters. According to a study published last year, sea lice are responsible for 39 percent of deaths among young salmon at sea.

In March, up to 2,000 people, including Icelandic conservationist Orri Vigfusson, a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, marched in Galway city to protest the proposed fishery.

Even government agencies are at loggerheads over the project: While the fisheries board is proposing the project, Inland Fisheries Ireland — the country's authority for recreational fishing— is against the fish farm. It has published a fact sheet(PDF) which says that sea lice from salmon farms are a risk to wild salmon and sea trout, and that interbreeding between farm escapees and wild salmon threatens native stocks.

“The scale of the present proposal is of a very significant concern as it provides for a greater production tonnage of salmon at this one location than is currently being produced nationally,” IFI says on its website. “In the past salmon farms were considered large when they were licensed for a harvest of 2000 tons — the current proposal is for a farm harvesting 15,000 tons based in two sites in Galway Bay."

Inland Fisheries has called for more detailed study of the area's salmon and sea trout populations before the salmon farm is developed.

Most of the Aran islands' land mass is a protected conservation area, as is the Corrib river and lake system that is home to salmon and sea trout that migrate through the bay. But the proposed salmon farm site is not in protected waters.

The Irish Sea Fisheries Board's head of aquaculture development, Donal Maguire, says that agency has been supporting coastal communities for 50 years and would not propose the project if it posed an environmental threat.

He says new research by Ireland's Marine Institute shows that sea lice are not a major threat to wild salmon populations.

The project's environmental impact assessment says sea lice distributed from the farm will stay in the immediate area; that escaped salmon will pose little threat to wild populations; and that the project will have no significant impact on protected species or habitats. The farm will also be certified organic, meaning it will have a lower stocking density than conventional farms, and salmon feed will come from fisheries that meet the European Union's sustainability standard.

But critics also say the fish farm project is rife with conflicts of interests.

"We're really concerned about the process of this, where it's essentially being imposed on us by the minister and his agents," says Enda Conneely, one of Inis Oirr's 249 inhabitants.

The Irish Department of Agriculture originally tasked the Irish Sea Fisheries Board to develop the salmon farm as part of its food and fisheries strategy. Now the senior minister at the same department, Simon Coveney, is in charge of making a decision on whether to approve the project. Some observers believe Coveney’s mind is already made up. Éamon Ó Cuív, a legislator who represents the Aran Islands, told The Irish Times  that he was asked by Coveney to garner support for the project among islanders. 

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Friends of the Irish Environment has lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman, an official Irish government watchdog, saying the farm would break a government commitment not to expand salmon farming until issues with sea lice are resolved.

The NGO Salmon Watch Ireland told Earth Island Journal that if the project is approved it will appeal the decision and could ultimately bring a legal challenge. The community co-operative on Inis Oírr has also indicated that it will use  “national and international avenues of appeal”  if the project is approved. In a detailed submission(PDF), the co-op said that the environmental impact statement lacks crucial data, and that due to the hazards of landing at the island's pier, none of the jobs generated by the project will benefit Inis Oírr itself.

With island and coastal communities hit hard by emigration and unemployment following Ireland's economic collapse, jobs are at the heart of this debate. "We badly, badly need the jobs and exports," says Donal Maguire.

The Irish Sea Fisheries Board says the project will create 500 jobs, and points to a smaller salmon farm by the mountainous Clare Island, 50 miles to the north, which it says is vital for keeping that island's small population viable.

The fisheries board says that the Galway Bay farm could even become a tourist destination  — an opportunity to show the fishing heritage of the Aran Islands being "brought into the 21st century in a green, organic manner".

But opponents worry that the industrial scale of the development could hamper tourism, on which the Aran Islands are heavily dependent.

"We have the same customers coming back for the last 20 years, and they don't want this," says Enda Conneely, who runs a guesthouse and restaurant on Inis Oírr. "You go out to the Aran Islands to go away from industrial scale farming." 

Lenny Antonelli
Lenny Antonelli is a journalist based in Ireland who covers the environment, science and the great outdoors. He is deputy editor of the green building magazine Passive House Plus, and writes regularly for The Irish Times. He is currently working on a radio documentary about Ireland's ocean ecosystems. His personal website is at lennyantonelli.ie.

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