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‘It’s like a town with no sewerage system’: Row over proposed Connemara fish farm goes to heart of bigger conflict

Anglers claim regulation of intense aquaculture is not fit for purpose amid depleted stocks, sea lice infestations and fish farm escapes

A salmon fish farm in Ballinakill Bay in Connemara where a highly contentious application for a far larger salmon farm is under process.

A salmon fish farm proposed for Ballinakill Bay in west Connemara goes to the heart of a conflict over how Irish fish farms are being licensed and regulated.

The regulatory regime should be robust enough to protect Ireland’s most prized angling waters from any threat from nearby intensive aquaculture. But anglers believe it is lax and not fit for purpose as ever-depleting wild stocks, sea lice infestations and fish farm escapes confirm the ineffectiveness of the system.

The West Connacht Coast special area of conservation (SAC) stretches from Louisburgh, Co Mayo to Mannin Bay, south of Clifden, Co Galway. With spectacular shorelines, it is part of the Wild Atlantic Way. At its heart is Ballinakill Bay, where the Dawros river flows into the Atlantic. Visitors to Connemara National Park in Letterfrack can view the bay from Diamond Mountain, watch inshore fishermen plying their trade, spot a visiting pod of bottlenose dolphins or simply admire the panorama.

The fish farm is due to be located in its shallow waters, with potentially devastating ecological consequences, according to salmon and trout anglers, river owners/managers, gillies and businesses associated with angling tourism in Connemara who are outraged by the move.


Within a 40km radius are some of Europe’s most prized freshwater angling locations. They contend the proposed salmon farm will have a devastating impact on the Dawros (Kylemore river), the Delphi, Erriff, Culfin, Bunowen, Carrowniskey, Owenglen and Ballynahinch rivers.

They are among Europe’s most precious — and vulnerable — wild salmon and trout fisheries. As Billy Smyth of Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages highlights, they were the most pristine of angling waters. “The salmon and sea trout populations in these rivers are hanging on by a thread and a licence for a farm such as this would be a final nail in the coffin for all the Connemara rivers and businesses dependent on angling tourism.”

Norwegian multinational Mowi, the biggest farmed Atlantic salmon operator in Ireland, has applied for a licence to build what would be “a vast 3,500-tonne open-pen farm with 22 high-profile, unsightly cages”, says angler Tim McCormick. He has fished the Dawros for more than 60 years (along with three generations of his family) and has a part interest with the local angling club in one beat.

Application for large salmon farm beside wild salmon rivers in Connemara ‘flawed’  ]

Mowi is the largest global producer of Atlantic salmon, with sales of €4.2 billion and pretax profits of €624 million in 2021. Currently it operates cages from Donegal to Cork.

The “open-pen” industry, however, has attracted widespread condemnation and is being curtailed in many places as countries increasingly recognise the modest job creation is outweighed by the environmental risk.

In Norway, expansion must be proved to be sustainable. Southern Argentina and Denmark have banned further farms. This year could see the end of open-net-pen salmon aquaculture on the US and Canadian west coasts. This approach to salmon farming is already banned in California, Oregon and Alaska. There are no open-pen farms in English or Welsh waters.

In Scotland, the industry continues to expand on the west coast, despite damage inflicted on once-great fisheries — though the aquaculture sector insists it is heavily regulated and its products are certified. Amid mounting clamour against pens, the Scottish government has undertaken to review its regulation, acknowledging recently wild fish stocks are in a critical state.

“Ireland still welcomes them. Indeed, through BIM, the Irish sea fisheries board, it offers grant assistance, thus using taxpayers’ money to subsidise them,” says McCormick.

It has long been known that infestations of sea lice, which thrive in the cages, pose a serious threat to wild salmon and sea trout. In 2019, BBC’s Panorama showed a wild fish covered with 747 lice and a diver who described the barren seabed and the fish as being “essentially eaten alive”.

Sea trout, being coastal feeders, are most directly affected. The Dawros sea trout run ‑ once prolific ‑ has been drastically reduced by lice.

Recent scientific research on Irish rivers, including the Dawros, shows heavy lice infection during the salmon smolt migration period has resulted in reduced runs of returning adult salmon the following year, ranging from 19 to 46 per cent.

“The Government chooses to rely on their in-house scientists from the Marine Institute, who downplay the significance of lice, rather than the overwhelming evidence from Norway, Scotland, Canada and, most importantly, Inland Fisheries Ireland,” McCormick says.

Letters reveal sharp difference of opinion on how Irish salmon farms are licensedOpens in new window ]

He says escapees from cages, “for which frequently nobody accepts responsibility”, run up rivers and may weaken the genetic strain by interbreeding with native Irish fish or at least compete for scarce redds where fish spawn.

A large cage at sea is like a town with no sewerage system. Faeces and food waste drop down to the seabed, contaminating the surrounding water, which is rarely adequately dispersed

Despite more lenient rules here than in Norway, Mowi reported in 2020 that 19 per cent of its Irish operations had exceeded the basic permitted sea lice limit.

In 2020, some 74,000 fish escaped from one of the “high energy” Mowi farms in Scotland due to storm damage — the third large escape in just over a year. High energy, incorporating deep water, exposed areas and strong currents, is a method designed to grow production sustainably. Mowi reported 48,000 escapees in another storm, some of which were subsequently caught on rivers in Scotland and England.

“In an era of extreme weather associated with climate change, this becomes an increasing worry,” McCormick says.

Another issue is pollution, he underlines. “A large cage at sea is like a town with no sewerage system. Faeces and food waste drop down to the seabed, contaminating the surrounding water, which is rarely adequately dispersed. Mortality rates, due to disease, poor fish husbandry and ocean warming, though rarely disclosed, have been estimated at 20 per cent of annual production in Scotland ‑ and up to 40 per cent in Ireland.”

There are indications warmer Irish waters make farmed salmon more exposed to algal blooms, gill infection and jellyfish, which enter cages. Mowi reported it lost a minimum of 80,000-100,000 mature salmon in Bantry Bay in October 2021 due to a toxic algal outbreak.

“The shallow waters of Ballinakill Bay make it particularly vulnerable to pollution, posing a threat to both swimmers and divers, as well as native fish and bird life in the vicinity,” McCormick believes.

Artificial colourants, toxic pesticides and some feeds have also attracted criticism. Salmon feed involves enormous volumes of ingredients, such as krill, which may lead to problems in the food chain for wild salmon and other fish, he says. Use of fish meal and salmon oil from wild fish is controversial, while damage can be expected for shellfish from the chemicals used to treat diseases. Mowi reported Ireland had the highest use of chemicals and fish feed of all its operations in 2019.

Government departments in conflict over how best to regulate salmon farmsOpens in new window ]

In April that year, Mowi had its licence suspended for overstocking in Ballinskelligs bay, Co Kerry. It was licensed to harvest up to 500 tonnes (deadweight) of salmon in any one year, but harvested more than 1,100 tonnes in 2016 — 121 per cent more than permitted.

Mistakes in aquaculture can prove expensive and bring unexpected consequences. Imported hatchery fish in Norway caused many rivers to become barren there, supporting no life for many years, due to disease.

Granting the Ballinakill Bay licence would have consequences “which are entirely predictable and potentially disastrous”, McCormick says.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue determines whether the application is subject to public consultation before a final decision on whether it is given a licence — or not.

The Dawros is not only one of Connemara’s most important salmon fisheries — its pure clear waters and wild salmon enable the freshwater pearl mussel to survive there. The local SAC specifically protects both mussels and salmon.

“It is small wonder that the river, with its wild beauty and charm, has attracted fishermen from far and wide for over a century. The disappearance of its salmon and damage to habitat would not only harm angling tourism in the short run, but also the wider tourist industry over time,” McCormick predicts.

Eoin Walsh, general manager of Ballynahinch Castle, says the Mowi application must be seen in the context of issues with existing fish farms in the area where “not enough is being done to make them compliant”. In his estimation, to build the largest one of all would double the problem.

Ballynahinch, through co-operation with anglers, was the first private fishery to adopt catch and return — “a fantastic process” which boosted stock numbers in recent years. “It would be an awful shame if an additional fish farm undermined that effort,” he added.

Closed farms or deepwater farms offshore could prove less destructive alternatives to open-pen farms if they can be built safely and are strictly regulated

With the help of ecologists, it was doing everything to improve the ecosystem of wild salmon with the help of anglers in Lough Inagh and Recess. He feared mismanagement and negligence would not only threaten that but damage tourism at Ballynahinch and throughout the region.

Seamus O’Neill, who runs Kylemore fishing syndicate, said the Dawros was an incredible waterway, one of the few where salmon numbers were increasing. “We are also very fortunate as it has its own population of freshwater pearl mussels.” They are dependent on salmon and sea trout to complete their remarkable life cycle spanning 140 years.

He is concerned by the company acknowledging in its application it may have to use chemicals to curb lice.

Overhaul of fish farm licensing regime urgedOpens in new window ]

Salmon farming is not necessarily all bad, McCormick stresses, since it provides a protein-rich product. It all depends where the farm is located.

“Closed farms or deepwater farms offshore could prove less destructive alternatives to open-pen farms if they can be built safely and are strictly regulated. Better still, farms can be built on land. In this case the farm would bear most or all the costs itself. The technology exists, but it would result in lower profits and is not favoured by the large operators.”

According to the environmental impact assessment report (EIAR) supplied with the application, sea lice from the salmon farm will have no impact on wild salmon or sea trout stocks. Mowi farmed salmon are harvested before maturity, it adds, so therefore may not be able to breed with wild stocks — the escape of enough farmed fish with the regularity to cause significant impacts to wild salmon stocks around Ballinakill Bay “is not a significant risk”.

“We have no confidence in these assurances,” says Billy Smyth. “Take, for example, the recent discovery of escaped farmed salmon in the Dawros river... No salmon farm operator has yet owned up to the loss of these escapees or to those captured by anglers in a number of Donegal rivers last year.”

Escapes from salmon farms are occurring on an annual basis. Inland Fisheries Ireland scientists stated last September that escaped farmed salmon could potentially transfer disease or could interbreed with the indigenous wild salmon population, thereby weakening the natural genetic gene pool of the wild fish.

With the salmon revered in Ireland as “the fish of knowledge”, McCormick says “our collective scientific knowledge should be used to protect the dwindling run of wild fish”.

“SACs, although not sacred, are designed to protect the habitat and water quality for future generations. They should never be allowed to degenerate into ‘SADs’ (special areas of destruction). They must be able to withstand powerful big business interests and prevent an ecological disaster.”

It is not surprising that Mowi should seek to expand its Irish interests in view of dwindling opportunities elsewhere, he adds. That said, “it would be a national tragedy if the Government were to approve the [Ballinakill Bay] application.”

A Mowi Ireland spokesman declined to comment on the application. “The company does not comment on proposed projects which are in the planning phase,” he added.