Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Seaweed Harvesting Licences
As the Minister is aware, a licence has been issued for the mechanical harvesting of sea kelp in Bantry Bay in County Cork. The licence will cover 1,860 acres of native kelp forest. It was not advertised adequately within the local community and contains no requirement for an environmental impact assessment. I would like to state for the record that I am not at all opposed in principle to the sustainable harvesting of seaweed - in fact, I previously applied for a licence for a small-scale operation. Seaweed is a fantastic natural and renewable resource with multiple uses in agriculture, food, medicine, energy and so on. Fostering the farming and harvesting of ocean resources in a sustainable way is instrumental to the new green economy that will be essential to Ireland as it moves into a post-carbon future.
This licence, however, is an example of how to stop that process dead in its tracks. There are a number of central issues with the agreement between BioAtlantis, the licensee, and the Department. The public consultation has been woefully inadequate. There has only been one public advertisement of the application in the Southern Star newspaper in December 2009, which did not mention the large size of the area under consideration, the mechanical nature of the harvesting or the indigenous nature of the kelp forest in question. Neither Cork County Council nor its western division, which covers the Bantry Bay area, was consulted on the plans. There seems to have been an almost deliberate exclusion of the Bantry Bay Coastal Zone Charter group, an EU-funded organisation designed to protect the bay from exactly such inappropriate developments.
The second issue is the scope of the operation planned. The 1,860 acres are quite massive, the equivalent of cutting down 38% of Killarney National Park.The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, clarified in the Dáil that the extraction will work on the principle of rotation, but that still means a massive area of the bay will be facing mechanical harvesting in any single period. As a test case this level of harvesting can hardly be considered a conservative approach.
Third, the nature of the harvesting is a grave concern for two reasons. I have already mentioned the mechanical harvesting but I am almost more concerned to learn of the way in which the cutting is to be conducted, namely, the cutting of the stipes of the kelp so fast to the holdfast. Best practice recommendations from the Ryan Institute on environmental, marine and energy research for the harvesting of seaweed states that individual plants should be left with 20 cm of the blade above the stipe to ensure the fast re-growth of the plant and that fertile plants should be left alone as much as possible. This is not what is proposed in the authorised agreement.
Finally, there is grave concern about the potential impact this level of extraction and its methodology would have on the ecology and habitat of Bantry Bay. Bantry Bay is an iconic and complex ecosystem and the kelp plays an essential part in it. It is the home for juvenile lobster and shrimp, a part of the life cycle of sea bass and correspondingly a key resource for species high up in the food chain, birds such as the chough and fulmar and mammals such as the iconic harbour seal. These in turn support various industries, notably the fishing and tourism sectors which are so essential to an area that was badly hit by the recession and only now is getting back on its feet.
The community of Bantry Bay is not taking this lying down. A public petition has been shared extensively and has secured over 4,400 signatures to date. Cork County Council has asked for consultation with the licensee about aspects of the deal and public meetings are planned for later this week. In fact, last night there was another public meeting in the area organised by Coastwatch Ireland and others, which discussed the importance of the bay in terms of local tourism, ecology and fisheries. At the meeting local voices raised concern about the effect large scale kelp removal could have on wave patterns in the bay and the effects on tourism, including diving, kayaking and angling which are now making a return since the recession. Concerns were expressed about the potential future colonisation of invasive species such as Japanese seaweed, which has the potential to move into areas left vacant by over-harvesting. There was a shared anger at the way the licence has been granted and a frustration that local people are not being heeded and that the local democratic structures are being undermined.
There have been nice sounds this week from both of the Fine Gael leadership candidates in their manifestos about protecting and cherishing the environment. While we do not have enough data at present to make recommendations on sustainable levels of seaweed harvesting, it is alarming that the Government could consider an area of this magnitude as an appropriate test bed. This is the same approach we saw the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, take with the heritage Bill - cut now, worry later. This is National Biodiversity Week, yet once again Fine Gael is taking an approach to the environment that is dangerously cavalier.
I have already stated that neither I nor my party is opposed to sustainable seaweed harvesting, but the approach we are seeing with regard to the community and the licence is unacceptable. We ask the Minister to reconsider the licence and to take into account the concerns of the community of Bantry.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I thank Senator Grace O'Sullivan for raising the matter. Earlier this month my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, outlined to the Dáil the background and context to the decision that was made in this case and I welcome the opportunity to provide similar details to the Seanad.
The history of the hand harvesting of seaweed and the uses or further processing that traditionally followed harvesting will be known to many. Over time and particularly in recent years more sophisticated uses have been found for the properties contained in seaweed. This has led to the development of cutting edge bio-pharma and similar businesses based on seaweed. These businesses face many challenges, one of which is the security of supply of seaweed, their most essential raw material. A number of applications were submitted over the years to mechanically harvest seaweed, but this licence is the first to be granted. The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government does not plan to grant any similar licence before the environmental monitoring data, the provision of which is a condition of the licence, is fully analysed.The indigenous Irish company that has been granted this licence had previously applied to harvest in Kenmare Bay. At that time, experts recommended that for an application to be approved it should focus on the areas outside of the special areas of conservation, SAC, and should include a commitment to conduct a detailed programme of monitoring. The application to harvest in Bantry Bay, which was originally received in June 2009, met with this criteria and was processed in the normal way. Normal public consultation procedures were followed, after which the marine licence vetting committee, an ad hocgroup of experts which has, for many years, advised successive Ministers on foreshore related matters, undertook a technical evaluation of the application and recommended that a licence should issue. Approval in principle was given by the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, in 2011. He agreed with the conclusion that, subject to compliance with the specific conditions attached to the licence, the proposal was not likely to have a significant negative impact on the marine environment. The final legal papers giving effect to the decision were completed by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly in 2014.
The licence is of a trial nature and was granted for a period of ten years, commencing in 2014. It allows for the mechanical harvest of certain kelp species 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 standby zone to be used only if weather prevents access to a zone in any particular year. On average, less than 1% of the bay will be harvested annually and much of the kelp in the bay will not be subject to harvest at all. The inclusion of a standby zone, which under the lease only comes into play in place of one of the other zones if needed, reduces the overall area for harvest by almost 100 ha to a maximum of approximately 650 ha. The licence is of a trial nature and can provide significant environmental data through a programme of monitoring and control, which can inform further policy development in this area. The agreed monitoring programme is available to view on my Department's website. It includes measurements of the kelp as well other flaura and fauna in both the control and harvest areas within the licensed area before commencement of the harvest. Over the lifetime of the licence, my Department will also receive an annual report on harvesting activities to include the area and quantities harvested and measured regeneration rates of the seaweed. In the event of an unacceptable impact on the environment being observed, the licence allows the Minister to modify or restrict harvest practices and schedules as necessary.
I understand that the Irish company which was granted this licence a number of years ago has, in good faith, made significant investment relating to the proposal. A harvest vessel has already been commissioned. Studies relating to the potential impact of the harvesting and a baseline assessment of flora and fauna in the harvesting site has been completed. Further expenditure will be incurred in regard to the agreed monitoring programme. It is envisaged that the data gathered through the monitoring programme will feed into further policy formulation and proposals in the general area of seaweed harvesting. I expect the information gathered in Bantry to be very useful in this regard.
It was not the fault of the Minister of State. Senator Grace O'Sullivan took an additional two minutes and because it was about Bantry Bay, I was a bit indulgent. I urge the Senator not to push me now and to be brief with her supplementary question. The Senator has made a very strong case.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply. She said that this harvesting is to secure the supply of seaweed but we are arguing that an environmental impact assessment prior to the initiation of mechanical harvesting is required. That is what the people of Bantry Bay are asking for and that is why they are so outraged at the moment; they feel that their voices are not being heard. Enabling the company to go ahead as is would potentially destroy the resource. We are pushing very strongly for sustainable harvesting of seaweed rather than the annihilation of the kelp seabed in Bantry Bay.
I have taken note of the issues raised by Senator O'Sullivan, in particular with regard to the public consultation process. The Senator said that the application was only advertised in one newspaper which meant that many local people missed it, despite the fact that it is so important.I will bring the issues, which the Senator has raised, back to the Minister, including those around environmental impact. I have taken a lot of notes. I will have the Minister come back to the Senator on a one-to-one basis.