If you can’t win the scientific argument, suppress it

Evidence on effect of sea lice heavily contested

“Fish farms are easily infested with parasites. Sea lice breed in them and spread to wild fish – sea trout and wild salmon in particular.”

“Fish farms are easily infested with parasites. Sea lice breed in them and spread to wild fish – sea trout and wild salmon in particular.”


One of the reasons for our obesity crisis is the loss of radio adverts specifically designed to put you off your food. Remember eating your bacon and cabbage to the accompaniment of adverts about liver fluke, sucking lice and sarcoptic mange mites?

The decline of these appetite suppressants has had a catastrophic effect on our waistlines. So, as a public service, today’s column is about sea lice. Though, actually, it’s about something even more disgusting: public policy and the way it is made.

Sea lice are of public importance because they are at the heart of the debate about fish farms. The State, through Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), plans to develop enormous salmon farms off the west coast, beginning with a gigantic project in Galway Bay. BIM is in the process of creating a huge farm (actually two farms) between the Aran Islands and Galway Bay. It will occupy 456 hectares – more than 1,100 acres. This massive scale is new: the Galway Bay project alone will produce more farmed salmon than all existing Irish fish farms combined.

Mounting concerns
The louse in the ointment is that fish farms are easily infested with parasites. Sea lice breed in them and spread to wild fish –

sea trout and wild salmon in particular – and (allegedly) kill them. There are also concerns that chemicals used to control lice may affect other forms of aquaculture, like oyster beds and shellfish fisheries.

Hence the question for public policy: does the good that giant fish farms do (some jobs and potentially large exports) outweigh the harm (environmental damage with bad economic and employment effects on tourism and inland fisheries)? The answer, for the vast majority of us is: we don’t know. We need solid evidence-based expert advice. And we need honest discussion of the pros and cons. A healthy system of governance would be able to provide those things.

Instead, what we have are two disturbing developments. The first concerns a paper produced in January by the Marine Institute, which is the relevant statutory body. It was great news: forget about sea lice, they’re really not a problem. It found that only 1 per cent wild salmon fatalities are caused by the lice.

If true, this is effectively the green light for massive salmon farms all along the coast. But, it seems, the institute’s sums are wrong. Writing in the Journal of Fish Diseases, four scientists from the University of Toronto, University of Prince Edward Island, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and the Scottish Oceans Institute cite “at least three fundamental methodological errors” in the paper.

They say that the Marine Institute’s own figures show that the percentage of salmon killed by sea lice is not 1 per cent but 33 per cent. This is serious stuff. If policymakers and citizens can’t rely on scientific data, how can decisions be based on evidence?

The second disturbing development is the apparent suppression of awkward views within the State apparatus itself. The issue here is that there is a clear split between two arms of the State. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAFF) is at odds on this issue with the Department of Natural Resources and, specifically, with one of its agencies, Inland Fisheries Ireland. IFI is responsible for wild salmon and trout stocks and does not buy the line that sea lice infestations are harmless.

In 2010, the European Commission, which was conducting an investigation into sea lice and salmon farms asked the department of fisheries for the views of IFI. According to documents obtained by Friends of the Irish Environment from the commission, what happened next is startling. IFI presented a report to the department of fisheries in October 2010. It was critical of the Marine Institute’s monitoring of sea lice in fish farms and reiterated concerns about the effects on wild stocks.

The staggering thing is that DAFF declined to pass this report from a State agency to the commission, which had specifically requested it.

It wrote to

IFI’s parent department to say that “transmission of your Department’s observations to the Commission would not only be misleading but would also cause confusion in the public mind regarding sea lice controls and possibly undermine the State’s regulatory system. For these reasons I would ask you to withdraw the formal observations of your Department and to support the observations supplied to the Commission by DAFF.”

(The EU commissioner for the environment Janez Potocnik has told Nessa Childers MEP that he is now seeking a copy of the report.)

Leave aside the substantive questions about fish farms and what we have here is a dreadful way of making public policy: highly dubious figures and demands that contrary views not be expressed. Memories of the previous successes we’ve had with these approaches should be enough to put you off your dinner.

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