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Aquaculture in Lough Swilly

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

Ireland has changed enormously in the last 20 or so years as it has become an integral part of the European Union (EU). Aquaculture is a recent phenomenon in Ireland, lagging behind its development in Canada, Norway and Scotland, for example. However it has become an important economic activity in many parts of Ireland, and is set to grow in importance, bringing many benefits to the country. Those who attack it are misguided.

Economic benefits

Salmon cages in Lough SwillyOutput from aquaculture is projected to increase from 46,203 tonnes, with a value of £68.9 million in 1999, to 97,023 tonnes which will be worth £138.3 million in 2008. A measure of the importance placed on this industry by the government is its place in the Irish National Development Plan 2000-2006. Grant aid is available to aquaculture companies for investing in new operations or for modernising existing facilities. Up to 40% of costs can be claimed (5% from the government and 35% from the EU) for the main species including salmon, mussels and oysters. Up to 45% can be claimed for developing new species, such as turbot and halibut, and for introducing new technology.

As Table 1 shows, all species of farmed fish have grown in importance, with new species such as turbot at the start of the process of growth. The potential for these is thought to be particularly great, hence the high levels of grant aid available.

Atlantic Salmon
Rope mussels

Table 1: Production of selected species in fish farms (tonnes) Source BIM

Fish farms are located in virtually every coastal county of the country (see maps at This spreads the economic benefits very widely. While many other economic enterprises are located centrally, often close to Dublin, aquaculture helps the economy of peripheral and rural areas. These are often the areas with the highest unemployment rates and tend to have low wages and limited opportunities. They are thus in the most need for development. One study of the aquaculture industry in Ireland found that aquaculture accounted for 6% of household income and the figure was much higher in the more remote areas. The study also found a very positive attitude to aquaculture by local people due to the long term, high quality employment it provides. Every £1 of public money invested in aquaculture produces earnings of £2.85 each year. There are an estimated 2200 people working on fish farms on a full-time and part-time basis and others are employed in producing foodstuffs and materials and in processing and marketing the produce; every person involved in salmon farming for example generates 1.26 jobs upstream.

No threat to the Environment

Salmon cage in Mulroy BayThe EU has put in place stringent regulations relating to pollution from untreated sewage near to shellfish aquaculture sites. It lays down a classification, which is in place throughout Europe, designed to protect consumers. Lough Swilly was downgraded by the European Union from A to B status in August 2001. This means that shellfish harvested from the Lough can no longer be used directly for human consumption but it must first be treated in a purification plant. The real threat to the quality of the water in Lough Swilly does not come from fish farming at all, but from increased pollution from untreated urban sewage. Donal Maguire, the aquaculture development manager for BIM (Bord Iascaigh Mhara – the Irish Sea Fisheries Board), said

“The fact is, it will be left up to fish farmers, as the only group who actively makes their living from the bay, to highlight and fight this serious threat to the environment”.

A campaign by the Irish Shellfish Association to encourage the government to improve sewage treatment facilities is the main hope of Lough Swilly’s water quality being improved. If there were no active shellfish industry there, this campaign would not have taken place.
Mr Maguire argued that much of the aquaculture operation was “virtually an invisible process with no possible visual or environmental impacts whatsoever.” He added that only a small proportion of the Lough would be used for aquaculture.

“Lough Swilly has a total area of 16,600 hectares. If you combine all the areas which are under application for intensive aquaculture, either shellfish or salmon farming, the total area would be no more than 160 hectares. That’s marginally less than 1% of the total area of the Lough.”


The Minister of State of the Marine and Natural Resources, Mr Hugh Byrne TD, launched a new initiative in 2001 called CLAMS. This Co-ordinated Local Aquaculture Management System has consulted over 50 people and tries to improve relations with other users and other industries in and around the Lough. Mr Byrne has asked the Save our Swilly group to take part in the CLAMS process. CLAMS will produce Codes of Practice for the cultivation of the different species and a framework for addressing and resolving issues arising from aquaculture and will provide information on other activities in Lough Swilly such as marine tourism, bird watching and wildlife.

Tourism and aquaculture

“Aquaculture increases tourism”, says Richie Flynn of the Irish Salmon Growers Association. That body has rejects suggestions that fish farming damages tourism. Indeed fish farming actually attracts visitors to an area as visits to fish farms are extremely popular and visitors prefer to see activity and people using resources rather than ‘dead bays’. ‘No-one can show any proof that there is any impact on tourism”, he said “It is all supposition dressed up as fact.”