Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Sustainable Seaweed Harvesting: Motion [Private Members]


3:45 pm

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I give my full support to this important motion, which addresses a specific situation that has being unfolding, in particular, in the west of Ireland, for many years.

There is not a tradition of harvesting seaweed off the coast of my area in south Wexford but, as I swim on Bannow Island on a regular basis and have to wade through 40 m or 50 m of seaweed before I get to clear water, I wonder is there potential there as well that has not been realised. I am aware that my father, when he was a young fellow, used to collect seaweed for fertiliser before he went to work in the morning.

A number of intersecting concerns are at play here. There is the sale of the main player in the industry, Arramara, which was a predominantly State-owned entity, to a Canadian multinational corporation, Acadian Seaplants, the circumstances of which lack transparency. There is also the issue of new methods of seaweed harvesting; and, most importantly, the traditional rights of the local harvesters that are coming into conflict with other harvesting licences being granted by the Government.

The motion before us is extremely urgent for a host of reasons. The traditional harvesters have mainly been operating under seaweed rights that go back for generations. In many cases, they have been going back to the same areas to harvest for over 60 years, which is a testament to the fact that their methods are sustainable. That they have been doing this for so long - many of them as a primary source of income, using traditional methods that protect their resource - should go some way to protect their rights to harvest. The Government states it is interested in promoting the development of the seaweed industry but this does not have to come at the cost of locals who are involved in the best practices in the area. In a recent reply from the Minister of State, Deputy English, to a written parliamentary question from Deputy Connolly, he stated that there were 117 applications to harvest seaweed that have yet to be determined by the Department, that certain rights to harvest seaweed already exist where these licences seek to harvest and that these applications by companies are effectively on hold until the Department can ascertain, with the assistance of the Attorney General, the legal interface and relationship between these traditional harvesting rights and the current applications.

Seaweed harvesting can be a lucrative business and when managed carefully and sustainably, has great benefits for the environment and local communities. If we were wise, we would have kept this industry in-house and developed it ourselves, but instead we sold out the principal player to a foreign investor for no good reason, and now we are on the verge of selling out the locals, who once sold primarily to Arramara, in favour of the multinational. It does not have to be this way. There is room for both the traditional licences of the local harvesters to be respected and the work of the bigger player to carry on profitably.

At present, Acadian Seaplants harvests offshore in boats and onshore. The locals operate almost exclusively onshore when the tide is out but there is already a situation where there is competition for the resource onshore because of the lack of clarity in the regulatory licensing regime. This is not an argument against progress, or some parish pump concern. This is an argument against the eternally repeated neoliberal practice of putting the interests of big business before the livelihoods of people in local communities and the environment.

There is a good argument for expansion in this area. In the field of biomass cultivation, seaweed is quite incredible. It utilises dissolved carbon dioxide and acts as a carbon sink. It also uses nutrients, such as dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus, that are running off agricultural lands in the form of pollution at an alarming rate. It does not need feed or fertiliser. It can be cultivated in very large areas with almost zero demand on fresh water resource - unlike much farming - and it grows faster than most other plants. It has a very long list of applications, many of which are connected to health benefits.

How this expansion proceeds must be monitored and assessed extremely carefully. Harvesting techniques must be ironclad in terms of sustainability, and any expansion of the cultivation of seaweeds should only be carried out in line with international best practice. All these concerns align in the recognition of the rights of traditional harvesters to continue what they have been doing sustainably and profitably for generations and after that, our primary concern should be to have the highest level of regulations and monitoring for those companies that will be leading the way in the expansion of the industry because it is these actors that will be obliged to prove that they can do their work in such a manner that is in keeping with principles of environmental stewardship. The traditional harvesters have already proved that this is how they operate and accordingly, should be given as much support as possible.


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