Residents fear for the destruction of ancient kelp forests in Bantry Bay

13th March 2017

Residents of Bantry Bay have been shocked by the discovery of a planned mechanical kelp harvest in the waters along the Beara and Sheep’s Head peninsulas. 753 hectares (1860 acres) of pristine kelp forests have been earmarked for mechanical harvest this year in Bantry Bay, but locals fear that their concerns have not been heard.

News of the harvest spread through the local community after the seaweed beds were featured on an episode of RTE’s EcoEye which aired February 7th.  The programme explained much about the importance of the kelp forests in the area and the possible effects of the harvest.

The Value of Kelp

Five sites have been chosen for mechanical kelp harvest

Seaweed has been sustainably harvested throughout Ireland by local fishermen for generations. The seaweed has been collected by hand and sold on to businesses who use it for many different commercial uses. Seaweed is rich in nutrients and has many properties that make it valuable commercially. It is used in fertilisers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, we eat it and bath in it. Some have natural antibiotics while others are antioxidants and rich in minerals. These properties have seen the demand for seaweed skyrocket in recent years.

Kelp is also invaluable for the eco-system. The calm waters among the kelp provides shelter, nursery nooks and protection from preditors to fish and other marine fauna. Detritus from the fronds breaking down and the mucus which keeps it slippery both nourish the food chain in the sea and on shore. Kelp and other seaweed also draw in huge amounts of carbon and circulates it into the ocean environment, just as trees do on land. The kelp forests slow down the power of the waves, acting as part of our coastal defences by reducing the impact of storms on the shoreline.

The Plan and the Possible Problems

In 2009 BioAtlantis Ltd, a company based in Tralee, applied for a licence to harvest kelp from five sites around the Bay. A notice was posted in the Southern Star, a West Cork publication, in 2009 outlining the planned harvest, but no one seemed to have seen it as the licence was subsequently granted in 2014. BioAtlantis Ltd were granted a trial license and work is set to begin this year. The trial license will see each site harvested on a rotary basis, with a review of the kelp beds after three years and again after a further two years to see if harvesting should continue.

A representative for BioAtlantis Ltd told the Southern Star that ‘We have complied with every requirement of Inland Fisheries, the Marine Institute and the Department of the Environment. Our process will cut the kelp 25cm before the hold fast and will not just rip the seaweed from the sea floor.’

During EcoEye Dr. Karin Dubsky, a marine scientist with Coastwatch Europe explained some of the possible impacts she sees with the proposed mechanical harvest in the bay. Dubsky points out that 25cm is not enough to allow for regrowth of the kelp. In order for the kelp to regenerate you need to only cut the fronds. The stipe of the kelp she measures is 34cm and if cut to a 25cm length, will kill the plant.

Kelp is a long lived plant and these forests have never been harvested in this way before. She says that cutting the kelp to this length is the equivalent of clear felling a forest. ‘We definitely know that, it is expected as well by government, that barren ground will be created,’ she states as she explains the consequences of this clear felling. ‘Then other species will come in. What worries us is what other species.’

The continuation of harvesting after the five year trial period will depend on the effects the harvest has had on the kelp beds and the marine life. Certain conditions of harvesting and monitoring have been included in the license. However, concerns that not enough research has been conducted undermine the license despite these conditions.  The development is not of a class requiring the submission of an Environmental Impact Statement. Furthermore, the Planning Authority makes decisions on a case-by-case basis on whether Annex II projects such as this one require an Environmental Impact Assessment, and one does not seem to have been needed for the granting of the license. This is being seen as a huge oversight as the consequences are potentially devastating to the areas in question.

Despite being a rich ecosystem, home to animals such as otters and rare white tailed sea eagles, visited by dolphins and humpback whales, and an incredibly important area for local fishermen, the mechanical harvest is set to begin later this year. A group of residents have begun a campaign to get their concerns heard and are calling for more research to be done before any mechanical harvest takes place. This is the first of its kind in Ireland, and what happens here could set the standard for future harvests around our coast.

If you want to keep up to date on the situation you can follow the Facebook group ‘Bantry Bay – mechanical native kelp harvest‘.

About the Author

Catherine O’Toole

Catherine is a contributor to the Green News. She has a BA in Photography from DIT and has a keen interest in conservation photography.