Tuesday, 9 May 2017
Topical Issue Debate
Seaweed Harvesting Licences
I wish to discuss the ten year kelp harvest licence issued by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to BioAtlantis in Tralee to harvest mechanically 753 hectares, or 1,860 acres, of native kelp forest in Bantry Bay in west Cork. The licence that allows BioAtlantis to harvest mechanically vast amounts of kelp in Bantry Bay is experimental and the effects could cause huge damage to west Cork. This is the first licence in Ireland or Great Britain to allow the mechanical harvesting of seaweed and the effects could be detrimental to wildlife, tourism and employment in Bantry.
The mechanical harvesting of kelp will affect birds, fish, flora and invertebrates in the area and also the local fishermen whose living depends on the bay and its resources.
There is much anger and unrest in west Cork as a result of this licence being issued and there is huge concern for the local ecology and economy. Bantry Bay is a crucial resource in terms of the environment, tourism and local jobs. This licence, which has been granted without essential input from key stakeholders, is seen as a serious imposition on the people of Bantry. They feel that the granting of the licence was grossly unfair and see no benefit accruing to the Bantry area. Instead, there is significant fear of the negative implications it will have.
There was a lack of adequate communication between the Minister of State's Department and the people of the Bantry area on this issue. The Department has an obligation to support Cork County Council and provide information on proposed developments in the locality in order for the council to be able to disperse this information to the public and allow the public to have an input. Cork County Council was not consulted about the granting of this licence, which will have an enormous impact on the people of Bantry and the wider community.
In 2010, the local community, regulatory bodies and other agencies with an interest in Bantry Bay developed the Bantry Bay coastal zone charter in order to safeguard our bay. The project was initiated by Cork County Council to address the challenge of successful coastal zone management around Bantry Bay. The stakeholders' charter is based on the understanding that regulatory agencies need to work in partnership with the local community for the successful management and development of the area. It explores the use of consensus, whereby all stakeholders work together to develop a single agreed approach to its development.
Key aspects of the charter include that local people have a role in decision-making in their local area. It states that all regulatory agencies must ensure that the public can understand how they operate and take decisions. The public must be able to have an input into the decision-making process and have full information about decisions made and appeal procedures. Where appropriate, all developments should involve all relevant organisations and individuals working together. Wherever possible, decisions affecting the Bantry Bay coastal zone should be taken on the basis of consensus, where general agreement among the local community is reached. This is to ensure that the decisions will have the strongest community support possible. The environment of Bantry Bay is unique and valuable and should be protected. All proposals for the Bantry Bay coastal zone should minimise the possible negative impact on the environment and, wherever possible, should improve the environment. The necessary requirements for local traditional livelihoods to survive and be successful should be respected in all proposals for the Bantry Bay coastal zone.
The Department has completely ignored the Bantry Bay coastal zone charter which stakeholders in our community worked so hard to develop. I ask that the Minister of State revoke the licence issued to BioAtlantis Tralee without delay on the basis that the Department did not advertise this licence with sufficient detail, it did not engage in consultation with local stakeholders and it failed to respect the Bantry Bay coastal zone charter.
I thank Deputy Collins for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to set out some background and context to the licence and the concerns that have recently arisen. My Department regulates seaweed harvesting in accordance with the Foreshore Act 1933. It aims to ensure that wild seaweed, which is a valuable resource, is managed appropriately to ensure that it remains sustainable and that the marine environment is protected. The use of wild seaweed has the potential, if sustainably managed, to feed into the development of new products or to enhance existing products or services and stimulate further economic activity in rural areas. Seaweed has been harvested by hand from the foreshore for generations and its harvesting and processing have been important components of some coastal communities' way of life for many years. It is economically and culturally very significant and I understand, therefore, the genuine concerns that have arisen in regard to this licence.
I want to give some context to decisions that have been made in this case. There have been a number of applications over the years to mechanically harvest seaweed but this is the first application to be granted a licence. Until the monitoring data that the licensee must provide is analysed, it is not envisaged that further licences to mechanically harvest seaweed will issue. The indigenous Irish company that has been granted this licence had previously applied to harvest in Kenmare Bay. No licence issued in that case because the expert view at the time was that any future application should focus on an area outside of a special area of conservation and also include a commitment to conduct a detailed programme of monitoring. The licence to harvest in Bantry Bay, originally received in June 2009, met with that criteria and was processed in the same way as other foreshore lease and licence applications received around the same time. Normal public consultation procedures were followed. The marine licence vetting committee recommended that a licence should issue and approval, in principle, was given by the former Minister, John Gormley, in 2011. In 2014 the final legal papers giving effect to the decision were authorised by then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Kelly, the direct predecessor of the current Minister.
The licence is of a trial nature and was granted for a period of ten years which commenced on 21 March 2014. It allows for the mechanical harvest of kelp species laminaria digitata and laminaria hyperborean within five specified zones but with only one zone to be harvested in any one year. The planned rotation is four years with the fifth zone being a stand-by zone to be used only if weather prevents access to a zone in any particular year. The stand-by zone is almost 100 ha, reducing the overall area for harvest to a maximum of approximately 650 ha. The licence is subject to strict monitoring and control provided for in the specific conditions attaching to the legally binding agreement of both parties.
A baseline study prepared by the licensee has been submitted to my Department for approval and is still under consideration in conjunction with marine experts. The agreed monitoring programme is available to view on my Department's website. In addition, the licensee is required to submit an annual report of harvesting activities to include the area and quantities harvested and measured regeneration rates of the seaweed. Should unacceptable impact on the environment be observed, I will have no hesitation in exercising my right under the licence to modify or restrict harvest practices and schedules as necessary.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Kelp forests are one of the most ecologically dynamic and biologically diverse habitats on the planet. The importance of kelp not only as a habitat but as a food resource for birds and fish has been highlighted by numerous studies. Kelp forests provide a foraging habitat for birds and fish. Kelp habitats are important nursery and refuge grounds for juvenile gadoids and salmon. It is preposterous to assume that the destruction of these kelp forests will not have a negative impact on the ecology of Bantry Bay.
While the Minister of State says that the normal public consultation process was carried out, this process was wholly inadequate. Residents of Bantry and the surrounding area were totally unaware of this application. There was no public oral hearing for the granting of the licence. I take issue with the level of advertising in respect of the licence. There was only one advertisement in a local paper and one flyer in the local Garda station for it. There is no mention in the advertisements of a mechanical harvest, nor of the size and scale of the licence. The licence for a project of this scale should not be advertised with such vague details. The advertisement gives the impression that the Department was only granting a licence to hand harvest a small amount of seaweed. The Minister of State must admit that this is unacceptable.
On behalf of the people of Bantry and surrounding areas, I am pleading with the Minister of State to rescind this licence immediately until proper consultation has taken place with the people of the area and until adequate research has been carried out on the effects of large scale mechanical harvesting of kelp in Ireland. I invite the Minister of State and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to come to Bantry. The community and the area have experienced severe hardship in recent years. Things have been just about turned around, with a lot of positive developments currently taking place in Bantry. If the Minister of State sees the beauty of Bantry Bay and the damage this harvesting will do to the people and the surrounds of the bay, he will rescind this decision.
I am aware that living seaweed acts as an important habitat for marine and coastal species and can provide spawning and nursery grounds for various species of marine life. Deputy Michael Collins mentioned how significant it is to Bantry. However, as the Deputy stated, we cannot forget that supporting quality employment in coastal communities, in particular along the western seaboard, is of great importance. Seaweed can play a valuable role in ongoing economic recovery in those areas. As I stressed earlier, it must be managed in a sustainable way. This indigenous company located in the south-west area was granted this licence a number of years ago and has, in good faith, made significant investment in a harvesting vessel, an assessment of the potential impacts of harvesting, and the baseline study. It has also committed to further expenditure in regard to the agreed monitoring programme.
These data will feed into policy formation and proposals in the general area of seaweed harvesting.
Given the overall circumstances I have outlined, I regret that I must inform the Deputy that we do not propose to accede to his request to revoke the licence granted in 2014. To be clear, the final legal papers giving effect to that decision were authorised by the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, in 2014 so it is not possible to rescind that decision. I understand the Deputy's concerns as he has raised them and I take note of his concerns in respect of the advertising around a licence such as this. I have no problem in discussing this with our officials in the Department to bear in mind for future applications. It is a conversation we have on general planning applications as well, and we certainly must go to all the right ends we can to ensure that people are informed of potential applications for planning permissions or licences etc. If that is something we can improve upon, then I will raise it on Deputy Collins' behalf with officials in the Department regarding future licences. As I said earlier, there are no plans to grant any more licences until all these data have been monitored. I believe this will be a useful prototype to be able to monitor and in making decisions for the future. I give my assurances that it will be done to the highest standards.
The Deputy has told me that but he must understand that I cannot go backwards to something that happened nearly six years ago. All I can give the Deputy is a commitment that the Department will monitor this and work with the company involved. No doubt the locals will have a view on the monitoring arrangements. The advertising arrangements will also be reviewed for future reference. I thank Deputy Collins for raising the matter today.