New Frontiers #1: Fish Farming

Nearly all of the articles we publish on this blog have an urban (Dublin) focus. That isn’t really surprising when Dublin is where we live, work, rent, and socialize. More generally the city has been (and continues to be) the site of new and politically significant transformations – particularly the relationships between real estate, the financial system and the state, and the way these relationships play out in our lives (unaffordable rents, gentrification, commercialization of city life). But the city is not the only place where new relationships between global investors, private developers, and the government are unfolding with negative social and environmental impacts.


Little reported in the Dublin-centric media, and little discussed amongst Dublin-based activists and academics, is the opening up of new ‘frontiers’ of development in rural and coastal areas. For example: new forms of energy extraction (fracking for shale gas and wind turbines); the building of new energy infrastructures (overhead pylons); plans from Irish Water for proposed water extraction from the Shannon for the greater Dublin region; large-scale fish farming and even gold mining. Often dismissed as various forms of NIMBYISM, the grassroots campaigns that have emerged in response to these developments have achieved significant success in terms of blocking or shaping how these developments are taking place.

One of the most important aspects of these campaigns has been the demand for greater community/public participation in the decision-making process and/or greater community benefits from the new developments. There are clear parallels to be made here with recent urban developments, and the extent to which state agencies like NAMA and (global) private developers are carving up the city with very little (if any) public participation or interest in wider social benefit. Learning more about what’s going on outside Dublin and how these conflicts are intimately tied up with urban expansion (demands for energy, water, food for the metropolitan areas) is important.

This is the first in a short series of posts about these new sites of contestation and why we should be engaging with them. To start off with: the expansion of large-scale salmon farming on the West coast.

Aquaculture and the ‘blue revolution’

Aquaculture, or fish farming, is the cultivation of any aquatic organism such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs or aquatic plants, like seaweed. It has been happening for thousands of years in lots of different ways but since the 1970s has taken off commercially and on an increasingly large-scale. Now, with dwindling wild fish stocks and the growing costs associated with agricultural production, there is a belief that aquaculture can expand to fill the demand for protein-based food from a growing global population.

In this context, the European Union has identified the development of aquaculture as a priority – due to limits on European wild fish stocks, dependence on seafood imports from around the world and the commercial potential of an expanded aquaculture industry. Member States have been required to draw up National Strategic Plans for aquaculture development. With hundreds of kilometres of relatively pristine coastline and clean waters, Ireland appears well placed to benefit from the opening up of this new ‘blue’ frontier.

Ireland Capitalizing Again

In January 2016, the Government published its first National Strategic Plan for the Sustainable Development of Aquaculture. The plan aims to increase seafood production from aquaculture by 45,000 tonnes by 2023. This represents a 120% increase in volume production from 2013. Most of this projected increase is expected to come from the most commercially valuable species of farmed fish: salmon.

To do this the government wants to get global capital involved. Fish farming (particularly salmon farming) is a high-risk and costly venture. It is estimated that to set up a new salmon farm in Ireland costs about €5 million. Salmon farming is also highly technical and highly regulated. For these reasons the sector has moved rapidly from being a relatively experimental, locally differentiated industry to a highly consolidated, global one – only a handful of multinational companies control farmed salmon production worldwide. The biggest of these companies, Marine Harvest, is based in Norway but operates salmon farms in 22 countries. These companies not only control the entire production cycle (from egg hatcheries, to onshore smolt rearing, to offshore salmon farming, processing and wholesale marketing), but also have considerable power to shape national and European aquaculture policies. By the mid-2000s, Marine Harvest Ireland, a subsidiary of the Marine Harvest Group, controlled about 90% of salmon farms in Ireland. In order to develop the sector, the Irish government is now keen to facilitate Marine Harvest Ireland in expanding its operations – investing in more farms and onshore processing.

One of the best examples of this kind of state facilitation was the decision by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to have Bord Iaschaigh Mhara (BIM), the state agency with responsibility for developing the seafood industry, apply to the department for a salmon-farming license in 2012. This was intended to be the first of two license applications made by the state agency for what they called the ‘Deep Sea Project’.

This was the first time that a state agency had applied to its own department for a fish-farming license – usually a private developer would apply to the department directly. Similar to planning tools like Strategic Development Zones (SDZs), the rationale behind BIM securing the license was to fast-track commercial development. The department felt that the administrative burdens and risks associated with such a large-scale, offshore salmon farm were putting off potential private investors and developers. By taking this burden off the private sector such developments could be speeded up. So BIM (at an expense of €500,000) was instructed to carry out the planning and application process and then lease out the license to a private developer for a set period of time (ten or twenty years) – most likely Marine Harvest Ireland.

The proposed salmon farm in Galway Bay was for 456 hectares spread over two sites. The scale was unprecedented, providing for a greater production tonnage of salmon in one location than is currently produced nationally – the proposal was for a farm harvesting 15,000 tonnes; the average production volume for a salmon farm currently in Ireland is between 2-4000 tonnes. It would have been the biggest salmon farm in Europe, if not the world.

As well as multiplying the costs involved in salmon farming, the development of an offshore farm on this scale also multiplies the environmental risks. An outbreak of disease, a swarm of jellyfish or a severe weather event would potentially lead to the loss of hundreds and thousands of fish, or the escape of farmed fish to the detriment of wild salmon stocks. While infrastructure, monitoring systems, contingency plans and farming practices can be implemented according to the most advanced specifications, unpredictability remains a constant feature of any form of fish farming.

Community opposition

In response to the proposed salmon farm, a group called ‘Galway Bay against Salmon Cages’ formed. This campaign group brought together a diverse group of local residents and communities: anglers, tourist enterprises, environmental campaigners, local fishermen concerned about the environmental impacts of the farm and mistrustful of the decision-making process. These concerns were not allayed by BIM’s environmental impact assessment that sought to demonstrate that the proposed salmon farm posed little or no risk to the marine environment, particularly wild salmon and trout stocks. As is often the case in such conflicts, technical evidence and scientific assurances are never enough to settle the disagreement. For one, the risks associated with such a large-scale farm are impossible to know in advance or control. More importantly, however, is the sense that such large-scale developments are driven by government departments, state agencies and private developers whose interests do not coincide with the interests of local communities or the environment.

In December 2015, after three years and hundreds of thousands of euros spent in environmental impact assessments and planning, BIM announced that it was withdrawing the license application. BIM announced that it would review the project in light of a new cap on fish farm size that was going to be included in the Government’s new national strategic plan for aquaculture. The strategic plan limits offshore fish farms to 5,000-7,000 tonnes – half the size of the Galway Bay project as originally proposed in 2012.

The decision to withdraw the application was welcomed by the ‘Galway Bay against Salmon Cages’ group, which has also made clear that it will oppose any other applications for salmon farms in the area. Certainly the decision by BIM represents a blow for the development of offshore salmon farming – local opposition, particularly the kind that can actually influence licensing decisions, does not sit well with potential developers. But this has not stopped BIM from continuing with a second application for an offshore salmon farm off Inishturk. Nor has it stopped Marine Harvest Ireland from applying for its own licenses – in September, 2015, the company was granted a license to develop a new salmon farm off Shot Head in Bantry Bay.

Beyond opposition?

There has been a long history of opposition in coastal areas to salmon farming – largely from the angling community and from environmental campaigners. One of the less positive effects of this long history of opposition has been the assumed polarization of pro-fish farming (private developers supported by government) and anti-fish farming (environmental and angling groups) groups. For example, ‘Galway Bay against Salmon Cages’, and a similar group in Bantry Bay, has committed itself to preventing any new salmon farms being developed anywhere around the coast. While the reasons for blocking such developments may be justified there are also limits to such oppositional campaigns. What tends to play out is a familiar impasse between a proposed, top-down development (with vague promises of jobs, investment and local development) and anti-development, local opposition (that focuses on environmental impacts) that will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to debating often highly technical planning criteria and environmental impacts.

What is harder to imagine and articulate in such conflicts is the possibility of alternative forms of marine-related development for the area. Fish farming, for example, can be carried out in many different ways – in terms of collective or community ownership (rather than corporate ownership and control); more extensive and significant local benefits (rather than limited, minimum waged jobs) and more diverse, ecologically sensitive forms of fish farming (rather than intensive mono-farming of salmon). This isn’t a criticism – it is very, very hard to move from oppositional to constructive politics – but something worth thinking about, particularly when such proposals and the forms to implement them are emerging out of other struggles in rural areas over energy extraction (fracking) and infrastructure (wind turbines and pylons).













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