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.”
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.
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.