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Aquaculture in Lough Swilly

| Background to the issue | Arguments for development | Arguments against development |

Opponents to aquaculture in Lough Swilly believe that the Department of the Marine, the government department in the Republic of Ireland responsible for fishing and fish stocks, has decided to designate Lough Swilly for aquaculture. The published maps of existing and proposed aquaculture installations for finfish, such as salmon, and shellfish, such as mussels, show that considerable expansion is planned.

PortsalonAquaculture, which already operates in Lough Swilly, is said to cover a water surface area of more than 400 hectares, and the Department of the Marine do not disclose how much expansion in Lough Swilly is proposed. However the Department of the Marine are very supportive of the aquaculture industry in general – their objective is to more than double aquaculture in Ireland by 2008. Opponents object to this support, as the same government agency is responsible for protecting the marine resources of the country as is responsible for promoting aquaculture which could damage those resources.

Many locals are concerned about:

Water quality in Lough Swilly

Opponents to fish farming maintain that the health risks are real. They claim that up to 19 different chemicals are regularly required and legally approved in the production of farmed salmon, for example. These range from pesticides to control the growth of pests that can proliferate in the salmon cages, anti-fouling paints to prevent the growth of seaweeds on the cages and nets, and antibiotics to control disease. These chemicals, along with faeces and excess food, can pollute the water or gather as sediment on the seabed.

Food safety
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are persistent organic pollutants that are produced by a number of industrial processes. Consumption of PCBs is toxic to humans above certain levels. A recent BBC programme 'Warnings from the Wild - The Price of Salmon' examined the level of PCBs in fish food fed to farmed salmon and suggested that this was the principal source of PCB contamination of the fish. The feed is allegedly contaminated by the fish oil and meal used to make it – these ingredients mainly come from the processing of wild fish.

Tourism and visual quality
While an increase in employment is often used to justify increased aquaculture development, it is estimated that, at present, Lough Swilly aquaculture employs no more than 20 people. Those who oppose an increase in the scale of the aquaculture industry are calling for a freeze in aquaculture licensing, but accept that existing installations can remain, securing these jobs.
It is argued that many more people in Inishowen and in Fanad depend on tourism, directly and indirectly, for their income. If Lough Swilly loses those qualities of unspoilt beauty, scenic routes, wild fish angling, clean seawater and safe beaches, that make the area attractive to tourists then jobs will be threatened as tourism investors seek to develop elsewhere. Some claim that visitor amenities suffer with aquaculture developments, as pleasure boating, diving, and other water sports find areas closed to them. Mr Mulcahy of the Save the Swilly group claims that “Tourism providers (hotel owners, tour guides) relate frequent complaints about the sight - and smell - of nearby fish cages”.
It is estimated that around six hundred people are employed in hotels, guest-houses and B&B establishments alone around Lough Swilly. Opponents to aquaculture developments believe that Ireland’s reputation as a clean and unspoilt part of Europe, so sought after by tourists from around the world, is at risk. If this reputation is lost, the cost to tourism and food industries will be colossal.

Protection of native species
There is concern worldwide about the decline in wild salmon stocks and many people point at fish farming as the cause of such decline. The precise reason why fish farms should impact on wild salmon in this way is not known, but there is suspicion that sea lice which commonly infest farmed salmon can transfer themselves to wild salmon and lead to a spread in diseases.

If a development to the present aquaculture sites is permitted, many areas of Lough Swilly will no longer be available for commercial shellfish fishermen. While much of the equipment used in aquaculture is sub-surface, nevertheless this prevents both fishing and pleasure boats from using the area. Many small-scale fishermen rely on the Lough, as their craft are not sufficiently large to brave the Atlantic storms in winter. The loss to fishing of areas of the Lough will have a significant impact on these fishermen. More than 80 people are permanently employed in commercial fishing around Lough Swilly, with another 200 seasonal jobs.

The EC Directorate-General for the Environment has already conveyed their concerns about aquaculture expansion in Lough Swilly's Special Protection Areas to the Irish government. Habitats for migrating and native wildfowl are under threat.
The Save The Swilly group is concerned that the government are not consulting local people when granting licenses for aquaculture enterprises in Lough Swilly. In addition, it is felt that the environmental and economic impact of aquaculture is not being properly assessed, and that the serious objections of local people are being ignored.

A petition, launched on 13th January 2001, demanded a moratorium on all further aquaculture licensing in Lough Swilly until an independent study of the issue was done. So far, more than 5,000 signatures have been gathered.