TALES OF A TRAVEL ADDICT:I WENT TO Inis Oirr last month for a most magical pop-up arts festival of musicians, artists and designers from Iceland and Ireland. It was called Drop Everything and was by far the most soulful and invigorating festival I’ve experienced in Ireland. But it seems inappropriate to talk about it, as something far more pressing was preoccupying the islanders.
Bord Iascaigh Mhara had just been out to them the week before to announce plans for a massive organic salmon farm just off the coast – a farm that would in one go double Irish salmon output. For some of the islanders it was as if a body-snatcher had risen up out of the St Gobnait’s graveyard. They were genuinely afraid.
Arriving at a holiday destination in the grips of such anxiety is a disconcerting experience. It feels somehow insensitive to carry on regardless, lolling around in flip-flops and shades when people are fearful for their future. I was having coffee one day when a man started singing local songs which mention the salmon and trout of Galway Bay. “That could all be wiped out if the farm goes ahead,” he said. Later, a woman confided, “We need a new pier, and if we cause a fuss we won’t get it.”
“Sure, what use is a pier if the water gets polluted and drives away the tourists?” said another. I wanted to just enjoy my holiday. At breakfast I tried to steer the BB owners on to any other topic, but it was all they could think about.
BIM is applying for a licence to farm 15,000 tonnes of organic salmon per year in Galway Bay – four kilometres off Inis Oirr, eight kilometres off Co Clare. They will sell the licence to the highest bidder. It’ll produce €100 million worth of salmon per year, and potentially create up to 350 jobs, with a further 150 indirectly. Annual wages of roughly €14.5 million will go to the local economy. It sounds positive, but can anyone know if it’s safe?
BIM’s public meeting in the community hall was, it seems, an exercise in over-simplification, with what was perceived as a high-handed dismissal of the current problems of fish farming: fish lice infestation, pollution by faeces and food-pellet waste, and the cross-contamination of wild and farmed salmon.
It claimed the chemicals used to treat outbreaks of fish lice will be no more potent than if someone stood on the beach in Connemara and sprayed a shot of perfume in the air.
Wonderful if true, but hardly convincing. It claimed there will be virtually no food pellet wastage, and that the fish will eat almost every single morsel dropped into the water. The organic food is so expensive that they cannot afford to waste any.
Again, sounds ideal, but less than realistic.
This is not just an issue for the Aran islands: equally large organic fish farms are planned off the Mayo and Donegal coasts. In the present climate, it’s hard to argue against an industry that might help the sustainability of island communities, yet their main income comes from tourism, which these farms could jeopardise.
Can BIM and the Marine Institute be certain about their facts, or are they chasing the windfall that will come when they sell the licences on to multinational fish-farm companies? They will apply for a licence to the Department of the Marine, whose Minister has already come out in favour of large-scale Atlantic fish farms.
The future of our island communities has rarely been more fraught and we can help them best simply by holidaying there.
For a sense of the reality of their lives, head to the West Cork Islands Annual Open Weekend (June 23rd-24th) where visitors can avail of local prices on ferry services and numerous free events. Islanders will be on hand to talk about their hopes and concerns.