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Controversial Cork seaweed harvesting project close to getting final green light

Tralee-based company BioAtlantis wants to harvest Bantry’s kelp for bioengineering purposes.

IMG_6744 Kelp washed up on Bantry shore in September Source: Deirdre Fitzgerald

A CONTROVERSIAL APPLICATION to allow for the mechanical harvesting of a ‘seaweed forest’ off the coast of Co Cork is close to being granted final approval.

Tralee-based bioengineering firm BioAtlantis Limited has been seeking access to harvest kelp in the waters of Bantry Bay for almost a decade.

In 2014, the company was officially granted a licence to do so by then Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly.

Final approval for harvesting to take place (which would be carried out by a solitary specially-adapted 21-metre vessel) is reliant on the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (which currently has jurisdiction over the issue via its Foreshore section) considering and approving additional monitoring measures on top of the completed baseline survey of the project (which can be read here).

However, the ‘Protect Our Native Kelp Forest’ protest campaign in Bantry says that it remains hopeful of convincing the department to reverse the decision to grant a licence and prevent the harvest from taking place.

The protest group has previously said that it first became aware that a licence had been granted in February of this year in the wake of the broadcast of an edition of RTÉ’s Eco Eye on the subject.

The group was previously harshly critical of the process by which the licence was granted, with the main source of contention being the perceived lack of consultation with the local community regarding the harvesting project. It likewise claims that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should have taken place in advance of the granting of the licence.

BioAtlantis categorically denies this, most recently citing a September confirmation by the EU Commission that kelp “does not fall under project categories” which require an EIA.

“There has been a lot of misinformation in relation to this,” BioAtlantis CEO John T O’Sullivan previously told TheJournal.ie, adding that the company would have gone even further in its bid for compliance had it been asked to do so by the State.

We would completely disagree that there was not proper consultation.

Monitoring programme

Asked for an updated indication as to how the process was progressing, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing confirmed to TheJournal.ie that “the licence granted in this case requires the approval of a monitoring programme prior to commencing activities”.

The monitoring programme and associated baseline report are under consideration at present.

shutterstock_554617447 File photo: seaweed in Bantry Bay Source: Shutterstock/Phil Darby

However, a separate source within the Department has suggested to this publication that monitoring has now been completed and is “expected to be approved in the coming weeks in order to allow harvesting to happen”.

Given the current time of year, it’s unlikely that any such harvesting would take place before next spring.

BioAtlantis would not be drawn on an expected commencement date for the project – when asked, a spokesperson merely confirmed that the “department recently requested that further survey work be carried out”.

“Once the additional work is approved and accepted by the department, harvesting may proceed.”

For its part, the local protest group says it has far from given up.

“We are hoping to meet with department officials soon to highlight our grave concerns regarding the issuing of this licence which may be in breach of many Irish and EU laws and regulations that Ireland has agreed to adhere to,” local woman and group member Deirdre Fitzgerald told TheJournal.ie.

As a group we are seriously concerned regarding the possible irreversible damage to Bantry Bay if this project progresses and commences.

While seaweed has been farmed by hand for hundreds of years in Ireland, and the use of the plant in both nutrition supplements and beauty products is well-documented, BioAtlantis is not a cosmetics company.

The 13-year-old Kerry business plans to use the harvested seaweed as a means to develop alternatives to the use of antibiotics in the feed of farmed animals.

BioAtlantis’ experience in Bantry, meanwhile, is not the only strained situation the company has found itself in with locals regarding the mechanical harvest of an area’s seaweed.

In 2015, the Mayo News reported that locals in Clew Bay in the western county had set up their own seaweed association, a move prompted by BioAtlantis seeking a 10-year exclusive licence to harvest the coastline’s seaweed.

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