An Irish Anglers World

Kelp Deforestation, another Nail in the Marine Ecosystem Coffin

On Friday April 21st 2017 I picked up a copy of the Irish Examiner prompted by a front page headline “Coveney urged to reverse seaweed licence”. Within the paper was an editorial titled “Kelp project questions unanswered” dovetailed with a lifestyle piece entitled “Does Bantry Kelp need Help” the subject matter of which is the decision to grant a mechanical harvesting licence to a County Kerry based bioengineering company BioAtlantis Ltd for an initial 1,860 acres of underwater natural kelp forests within Bantry Bay, all articles collectively highlighting the gravity of this marine licencing decision both locally and nationally.

I am very familiar with the once super abundant east coast fishing grounds off Greystones, Co. Wicklow. Comprising rocky, kelp covered reefs and permanent mussel banks washed by strong tides; they were in my youthful experience a piscatorial Garden of Eden from my first encounter in the late sixties to sometime during the mid 1980’s. Year upon year, season after season a diverse range of marine species migrated to feed and breed in this rich inshore coastal environment off North County Wicklow.

Beara pollack live above, in and around kelp forests.

By the early 1990’s this bountiful underwater wonderland had changed radically, morphed into a marine desert the result of over fishing by foreign and Irish registered vessels within the greater Irish Sea coupled with licenced removal by Irish registered vessels of vast inshore coastal mussel banks dredged up to supply the bottom mussel harvesting industry both at home and abroad with mussel seed (spat). This double whammy destroyed in the process a permanent undersea habitat rich in vegetative and animal biodiversity in order to fuel an industry’s demands.

From 2007 I felt compelled to write about this still unfolding ecological tragedy off Ireland’s east coast and publish in the hope that forward thinking decision makers would pick up on the message and act to in time rehabilitate a precious lost marine environment once so important to the local economy. Ten years later the status quo has not changed one iota and the seas off Greystones still lie barren contributing nothing more locally than a nice view.

A sea angler for over forty years, I discovered the Beara Peninsula in far West Cork its stunning beauty and stupendous marine bounty around 2005 and have been travelling down, mainly to fish, about twice a year since. Places such as Shot Head, Cod Head, Dunboy, Dursey and Allihies magnetically draw me because the sea fishing is a throwback to times past on Ireland’s east coast. Wild, extremely rough, rocky, kelp strewn habitats are the key reason Beara’s sea fishing has remained so good contrary to the negative fishing experience one is exposed to off Ireland’s east coast, where a diminishing fish species count coupled with reduced size and proliferation has become the norm.

Down on Beara I fish off rock platforms into water that can be 80 foot plus in depth, masses of kelp wave in the Atlantic swells which are home to colourful ballan wrasse and large olive green/copper burnished pollack, but also attract bottle green coalfish, mottled red cod, lesser spotted dogfish, black as pitch bull huss and massive snake like conger, all denizens of the tangled kelp forests which provide sanctuary, sustenance and protection.

A cracking Beara ballan wrasse, denizen of the kelp.

My experience over ten years fishing the area is clear, Beara Peninsula fish still attain their full size contrary to wider sea fisheries experience where species are getting younger, smaller and maturing earlier, a direct reaction to commercial fishing pressures. Experiential knowledge gained over forty years tells me that what has occurred under the seas off Greystones, Co. Wicklow will be repeated off Beara if mechanical kelp deforestation is allowed affecting negatively a local economy presently in the process of developing an expanding marine tourism product which involves locally caught seafood and sea angling at its heart.

Bad national sea fisheries management decisions underpinned by inadequate or non existent legislation has resulted over the last thirty years in species decline and the demise of artisan small boat fishing and Tourism Sea angling not only off Greystones, Co. Wicklow but around much of Ireland’s coastline. Tourism angling is worth a direct spend of €100 million annually to Ireland with sea angling representing 33% of this turnover the bulk of which is spent in Ireland’s south west (TDI, 2013).

As a stakeholder who keeps his ear to the ground when it comes to marine matters I feel totally let down by a system which has allowed an Irish company obtain a licence to clear fell pristine underwater environments, the resultant of which will be environmental decline on a grand scale and loss of existing tourism and artisan fishing related jobs as evidenced by the Greystones experience. In my opinion the Irish Government has let both BioAtlantis Ltd and the Irish people down by allowing this licence application proceed so far when all the current information cried stop. A breakdown of the information published on Friday 21/04/2017 in the Irish Examiner underpins the former statement.

Transparency was not served here because I, a regular visitor to the Beara since 2005 who is passionate about the marine, did not become aware of BioAtlantis Ltd’s plans until a couple of months ago. Is it any wonder no submissions against the BioAtlantis kelp harvesting proposal were received even though planning notice was given in the local area as far back as 2009, visibility of BioAtlantis Ltd’s planning application was to say the least poor.

Beara bull huss, lover of kelp forests where it feeds on crustacea.

That given current peer reviewed academic knowledge on kelp forest removal and biology the state in its planning approval phase did not require an EIS for this seaweed harvesting licence application is also a shocking state of affairs. The managing director of Tralee located Bioengineering company BioAtlantis is quoted as saying that “marine life will not be harmed” and that the operation will be “much less invasive” than Norwegian or French operations (Irish Examiner, April 2017).

(Svendsen, 1972), in his study of kelp harvesting found that post harvesting individual plants were only half the height (about 1 m.) of the former mature plants (about 2 m tall) and that from an ecological point of view, even after 3 years, the disturbed biotope was species-poor in comparison to undisturbed habitats. Most importantly that while the forest may regenerate sufficiently after 3-4 years to be harvestable again it is certainly different in structure, both as regards the kelp plants and the subsidiary flora and fauna.

(Rinde et al, 1992) argued that the forest may be re-harvestable after 4 years but that it does not provide the same physical environment for the many organisms which it shelters. Plants in control areas, at about 10 years old, have a much richer and more extensive epiflora than the younger, replacement plants found in previously harvested areas.

(Rinde et al, 1992) also found that kelp biotopes provide a habitat niche for species of amphipods, isopods, gastropods and small fish. That kelp holdfast fauna is richer in both species and numbers of individuals for 10-year-old plants from the control area than for younger plants from previously harvested areas. Also that various larger species were found associated with holdfasts to include shrimps, lobsters, edible and hermit crabs. These species were absent from recently harvested areas and well established populations appeared only in the undisturbed kelp forest, suggesting that full biological restoration after harvesting may take at least 10 years or not at all if harvesting is regular and ongoing. Lastly that benthic macrofauna and macroflora were more diverse in the control area (51 species) as against the recently harvested area (21 species).

Pints in McCarthy's Bar Castletownbere, West Cork, Ireland.

Further backing up the experience of Rinde et al, 1992, experimental studies on kelp for the SEASURF project conducted at a rocky shore called An Trá Beag (53.24N, 9.15W) near Furbo, Co. Galway, found one of the most obvious changes brought about by kelp removal was the disappearance of the edible sea urchin Echinus esculentus and other large mobile species, such as lobster and crab which vacated the harvested area (Werner & Kraan 2004).

Potting for crab and lobster is an important local industry around Beara while tourism sea angling not only provides income for accommodation providers, pubs, restaurants, shops and charter boat owners, it also generates a “positive message reach” well beyond Ireland’s shores with sea anglers currently travelling in increasing numbers to Beara from the UK and Holland, due to main stream and social media promotion in conjunction with word of mouth stories.

The MD of BioAtlantis Ltd according to the Irish Examiner, published Friday 21/04/2017 also states that 20% of the standing stock of kelp is washed ashore every year, and is quoted, “so one storm will do more damage than we can ever do”. Marked absent from the narrative is that kelp like trees has a seasonal life cycle, growing in the spring/summer and shedding in the autumn/winter. Winter storms do not damage kelp at all, they facilitate a natural annual life cycle of growth, decline and re growth very similar in process to leaves on trees. Why not just gather this seasonal autumn bounty as it is washed ashore and leave Ireland’s to date pristine kelp forests well alone, surely that is the most cost effective and sustainable approach towards harvesting primary raw material for Ireland’s seaweed industry?

Official Ireland in my lifetime has repeatedly shown that it has no regard or vision for the marine resource it inherited post independence. While all the indicators backed up by scientific and historical proof point world wide to catastrophic marine decline our decision makers continue to facilitate this decline within Ireland’s territorial waters so impoverishing both holistically and economically present and future generations, not only of direct Irish decent but worldwide.

Ireland as a nation is the undeserved custodian of a wonderful marine resource, it’s about time that we as a people recognised this fact and created a future marine management approach that is respectful and visionary as against destructively mining the resource into extinction or worse being completely ignorant of its potential, proposed clear felling of pristine kelp forests in Bantry Bay a continuation of this sorry road to perdition………….

Ashley Hayden © May 2017


Astrid Werner & Stefan Kraan 2004, Review of the potential mechanisation of kelp harvesting in Ireland.

Irish Examiner, Friday 21/04/2017, Editorial, Front page and Lifestyle – Does Bantry Kelp need Help?

Rinde E, Fredriksen S, Christie H, Sivertsen A, 1992 Okologiske konsekvenser av taretraling: Betydening av tareskogens struktur for forekomst av hapterfauna, bunnfauna og epifytter. NINA Oppdragsmelding, 127, 1 – 37.

Svendsen P, 1972 Some Observations on Commercial Harvesting and Re Growth of Laminaria Hypoborea. Fiskets Gang, no.22 448 – 460.

Roberts C, 2007, The Unnatural History of the Sea, Island Press.

Thurstan, R.H. et al, 2010. The Effects of 118 years of Industrial Fishing on UK Bottom Trawl Fisheries.

Tourism Development International TDI 2013, Socio-Economic Study of Recreational Angling in Ireland.