A licence to mechanically harvest 752 hectares of kelp in Bantry Bay, West Cork, described as the largest ever granted in Irish or UK waters, has been met with widespread opposition from fishermen, conservationists and local interests.

In March 2014, biotechnology company BioAtlantis was granted a Foreshore Licence to harvest ‘specific quantities of specific species of seaweed’ on a rotational basis. The licenced area is split into five harvesting zones, to be harvested on a four-year rotation with a stand by zone (99 hectares) only to be harvested if weather is adverse.

Bantry Bay map

Concern centres on a lack of adequate public consultation and notification, and the fact no Environmental Impact Assessment was required. Since the application was made in 2009, amendments were made to the legislation in 2014 regarding type and characteristic of projects that require EIA.

Official response

In correspondence (April 2017) with Simon Coveney, Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Michael Collins TD said the project was not in keeping with the spirit of the Bantry Bay Coastal Zone Charter of 2010, to safeguard the bay.

‘The stakeholders’ charter is based on the understanding that the regulatory agencies need to work in partnership with the local community for successful management. Cork County Council were not consulted about the granting of this license [sic] which will have enormous impacts for the people of Bantry and the wider community.’

In response, Minister Simon Coveney said, inter alia, that an EIA was not necessary as the project ‘is not within a Natura 2000 site, it is not of a class set out in Annex I of the Directive nor does it fall into Annex II and therefore an EIS is not required.’

A spokesperson for Bantry Bay – Protect our Native Kelp Forest, said the basic advertisement that appeared in just one local paper referred to occupying ‘part of the foreshore for the purchase of harvesting seaweed’.

“No mention was given to the industrial scale of this licence or that it would be by mechanical means. Removal of 1,860 acres of native kelp forest…may be an ecological disaster for the bay.

The people of Bantry Bay do not want this harvest to go ahead without proper consultation.”

Environmental concerns

Karin Dubsky, Coastwatch, told Inshore Ireland that while harvesting kelp can have local economic benefit and provide super food ingredients, “wise harvesting and aquaculture allows you to do that and at the same time, keep the many other ecosystem services including fish nursery, carbon storage and storm mitigation.

“This would protect our marine ecosystems and benefit far more people.”

Inshore Ireland subsequently asked the DHPCLG why an EIA was not required, given the amendments to Directive 2014/52/EU, Annex IIA and footnote, and Annex III:

‘The licence to harvest in Bantry Bay was originally received in June 2009. It was processed in the same thorough way as other foreshore lease and licence applications received around the same time. The Marine Licence Vetting Committee, a group of marine experts who advise the Minister of the day on the technical and environmental aspects of foreshore applications, recommended that a licence should issue and approval in principle was given by Minister John Gormley in 2011.

‘The final legal papers, the licence between the State and BioAtlantis giving effect to the decision, were completed by Minister Kelly in 2014. All necessary environmental screening was carried out in accordance with the legislation relevant at the time.’

A 10-year licence commenced on January 1, 2014 and harvesting is expected to commence this year. Approval of a baseline study that is currently ‘under consideration’ by the department is a prerequisite before harvesting can begin.

DHPCLG responds to Inshore Ireland:

II: Coastwatch is calling for mechanical harvesting to be stopped until more information is collected on the effects on the ecosystem

‘This application was circulated at the time to various bodies for their views and input. Submissions were received from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaelteacht; the Marine Survey Office; the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board, the Central Fisheries Board and the Marine Institute.

‘The Marine Licence Vetting Committee considered all material pertaining to the application and concluded that subject to compliance with specific conditions the proposed harvesting was not likely to have a significant negative impact on the marine environment.

‘To strengthen the sustainability of the harvesting plan for the licenced area within the bay, the harvesting is also subject to a strict monitoring programme and requires approval of a baseline study prior to commencement of operations. All costs associated with the baseline study which was carried out in September 2016 and costs associated with the monitoring programme were or will be fully borne by the licensee.

‘The monitoring programme includes comparisons between harvested and non-harvested areas in each zone for density and height of kelp together with quantitative measurements of flora and fauna prior to commencement of harvesting (2016) and in years 3 (2019) and 5 (2021) for 15 areas within each zone.’

II: The NGO contends that cutting kelp stripes off as low as 25cm from the holdfast would affect sea life

‘The method to be used under this licence will apply moderate suction to draw the kelp into the cutting area where sonar and sound automation will ensure that the kelp is harvested at a minimum of 25cm from the holdfast. The licence is also subject to strict monitoring and control. In the event that unacceptable impact on the environment is observed, there is an option to modify or restrict harvest practices and schedule as necessary.’

II: The NGO is also calling for the area affected to be designated a Marine Protected Area on the basis that the kelp forest ‘would be an excellent candidate for designation…would protect the fish nursery and would protect the otter which feeds on the sea urchins and the fish.’

‘This Department has responsibility for operating the consenting process which regulates the use of the Foreshore in accordance with the Foreshore Act 1933, as amended. Designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is currently carried out under the Birds and Habitats Directive and is the responsibility of the NPWS within the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

‘The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is in the process of drafting legislation to enable the designation of MPAs under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. An expert group will be established in due course to identify other types and locations suitable for designation as a MPA.’

II: An Taisce has also suggested that an EIS would indicate what levels of harvesting would allow for the kelp to grow back

‘During the processing of this application submissions were received from a number of organisations with expertise in the area of nature conservation including the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

‘The Marine Licence Vetting Committee took into account the views raised through the consultation process in granting this licence. The monitoring programme which has been put in place together with the baseline study required prior to commencement of operations was developed, by working closely with an experienced representative of Inland Fisheries Ireland.’

II: If an EIA is not required for this licence to harvest 1,860 acres, on what basis ‘could’ a licence be required to mechanical harvest kelp?

‘Each application processed by the Department is assessed on its own merits in line with all applicable legislation in force at the time therefore it is impossible to say when an EIS would be required.’