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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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Guest Column, September 2004

Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland: "Marine Harvest receives thumbs-down from Ireland's Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board", John Mulcahy, spokesperson for Save The Swilly, reports. ďThree cheers for the appellants, a diverse group of individuals and bodies all concerned with the implications of a large-scale salmon farm in an area recognised as possessing one of the most spectacular beaches in the world and a surrounding bay to match. But, in the best traditions of the worst Hollywood dramas, the nightmare is to be revisited, at least if Marine Harvest, the Nutreco subsidiary that dominates the global salmon-farming industry is to have its way ... this is only one story from the battleground that is the interface between the global aquaculture industry, with its allies in the Irish government, and those who believe enough is enough."

Irelandís Sub-letting of its Marine Resource to the Fish Farmers

Save Lough Swilly

Lough Swilly is one of the most sublime bays in Europe. A natural deep-water harbour, it hosted Admiral Jellicoe's fleet as it amassed to tackle the Kaiser's armada in the North Sea. Its proud natural sentinels are Malin Head, Ireland's northernmost point, and on the western end of its mouth, the Fanad Lighthouse. Lough Swilly boasts four salmon and sea trout rivers - the Swilly, Crana, Lennon and Mill - and for the past 20 years or so it has also accommodated one salmon farm. More recently, it has seen the arrival of a host of cultivated Pacific oyster and mussel operations.

The aggressive aquaculture licensing regime applied by the Irish Government in the period after the launch of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997 more than quadrupled shellfish licences in Lough Swilly between 1997 and 2001, and two additional salmon licences were granted. This heightened level of activity spawned Save The Swilly, an umbrella body established in 2001 to demand the introduction of integrated coastal zone management.

Save The Swilly (STS) is a united front representing the interests of fishermen, anglers, sailors, hoteliers, bird-watchers, surfers, swimmers and others uneasy about the trend towards the intensive industrialisation of the lough. STS was successfully launched the very week the BBC broadcast its piercing indictment of the salmon-farming industry. Comprehensive media coverage in Ireland precipitated a meeting with the Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and a phalanx of officials. Important points were made at this and subsequent meetings, the principal one from the Government being that the 1997 Act had provided for an appeals mechanism, independent of the Department of the Marine, and that objectors should use the system.

Save The Swilly's members were sceptical, after the failure of successive objections and appeals against the onslaught by the fish farmers on the hunter/gatherers (commercial fishermen and anglers) and other legitimate stakeholders. But they decided to follow the appeals route anyway, and also submitted a petition with 10,000 signatures to the European Petitions Committee calling for the introduction of an integrated coastal zone management system in Lough Swilly.

In December 2003, a group of six appellants successfully appealed to the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board (ALAB) the award of a 90-acre salmon-farming licence to Marine Harvest Ireland. There remained one channel of counter-appeal for the company, a Judicial Review of that decision. The window for the Judicial Review application duly closed, with no action from the company.

Given the fact that the company decided to forego its right to challenge the ALAB decision in the High Court, it is puzzling that the licensing authority seems to have given its blessing to yet another attempt at a licence in the same location, Dooanmoore. Is it the case that ALAB temporarily forgot its real role, to usher through the decisions of the Minister? That may seem cynical, but prior to the Dooanmore decision the only salmon-farming licence to be overturned (in Inver Bay, Co. Donegal) by the Appeals Board resulted from an appeal against the licence by the Irish Salmon Growers Association and the three existing fish farms in the bay concerned. Curiously, the key ground for that appeal was cross-contamination between the farms in the bay!

STS's belief is that the Irish government is paranoid about coastal zone management, largely because it does not wish to engage in a genuine debate about the optimal use of resources. Evidence suggests that policy in rural Ireland is driven primarily by available European Union (EU) grant funding. For example, pier developments to support inshore fishermen are put on the back-burner, while grants totalling millions of euro are awarded to mussel dredgers and Pacific oyster farmers.

Any project requiring funding from the central government (such as inshore fishing, tourist amenities, satellite broadband) is typically rejected in favour of projects (such as aquaculture) where up to 75% of funding can be sourced from the EU. Europe's notorious inability to connect the dots, meanwhile, has Ireland receiving huge handouts for developing aquaculture, while at the same time facing serious charges in the European Court of Justice for granting aquaculture licences within Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protected Areas and other habitats without due care. Go figure!

Consequently, the salmon-farming industry in Ireland clearly believes it has little need to justify or explain its activities as long as it can make the case for job creation or, in the more insidious iteration of that argument, job protection. In other words, "give us our licence or jobs will be lost". This is especially evocative in areas where manufacturing jobs have been declining for years.

Save The Swilly has put its money, or more accurately the funds derived from public contributions, to work in advancing the cause of integrated coastal zone management. At considerable cost, the group commissioned an independent "Scoping Study for an ICZM strategy for Lough Swilly", conducted by the Coastal Studies Research Group at the University of Ulster. In essence, what Save The Swilly offered to the Irish Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was a road-map to peace on our shores.

The subsequent silence has been deafening. Conflicting interests have mushroomed since the Irish Government de facto designated Lough Swilly as an aquaculture bay. Among these have been the serious marine safety risk posed to fishermen and leisure craft by long-line mussel operations, whose flotation buoys tend to break away in moderate seas and drift in the navigation channel; aggressive dredging by bottom-culture mussel farmers who have destroyed significant tracts of indigenous oyster ground; and the continuing decline in salmon and sea-trout stocks, causes of which are never attributed officially to sea-lice emanating from salmon farms.

While the multinationals and their patrons in the Irish government and the civil service doggedly pursue their grant-mining activities, the traditional fishing communities are fed on the scraps from the fulsome EU grant table. Groups such as Save The Swilly will not go away, as long as the injustices of Irelandís sub-letting of its marine resource to the fish farmers continue.