Fish farms could turn tide for West Cork tourism
Lay of the Land
I am sitting outside Jacob's Bar in the buzzing village of Baltimore, West Cork. Even late in September, the pier is teeming with tourists, who gather to enjoy a pint or fish and chips, the pleasure for some tempered by the scavenging of ridiculously cute resident cocker spaniel, Rosie.
Many others come, like me, hoping for a Moby Dick moment at sea. The demand provides livelihoods for marine tourism operators, like Nic Slocum and Michael Cottrell, though hundreds more jobs are created from its knock-on effect of drawing people to an area with "some of the best whale watching in Europe" as Michael says.
But this isn't an aquarium, like SeaWorld, which keep whales confined in the equivalent of a bath tub for our entertainment. Instead, boats search for whales and other wildlife in their vast, natural habitat.
Yet they invariably succeed, thanks to their skill and experience, but also because the skippers, along with local fishermen, share their information. This cooperative approach reflects the one at sea, for when a whale eats, so does plenty of other marine life. A swarm of sea birds on the ocean surface identifies the big guns beneath.
It is an exhilarating experience of this 'blue planet', as conservationist David Attenborough calls it. Now two giant fish farms that would cover approximately 250 acres are planned for this special area of conservation, where the existing mussel and oyster farms are esentially organic.
Right now, things are only at the 'scoping' stage, and Michael feels "there are more questions to be asked before we can answer". No one knows seems to know who the company is behind the plan.
As for the whales; "I know of no area where fish farms have been put in place that hasn't destroyed the marine life," says zoologist Nic. He cites British Colombia, where fish farms have "destroyed the natural population of salmon there; because of the antibiotics used, dyes in the food, and fish excrement everywhere".
Michael shows me a chart for May and June alone, which different colour dots representing the location of basking sharks, minke whales, and so on. "The whales won't come anywhere near here if those fish farms are there," Nic says bluntly. Michael questions the effect of acoustic scarers on harbour porpoises. "Talk about creating six jobs doesn't make sense, when you consider the potential damage to the overall tourism industry worth millions," Nic believes. "Fish farming isn't going to bring anyone into the area."
I wonder what Rosie would do without Baltimore's tourists to tease for titbits with her furiously wagging tail.