Francis O’Beirn

Benthos Ecology Group, Marine Institute, Rinville, Oranmore, Galway, Ireland

e-mail: fobeirn@marine.ie

Key words: Natura 2000, aquaculture, conservation, risk assessment

In 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled that Ireland failed to consider adequately any impact aquaculture operations had on Natura 2000 features during licensing deliberations. On foot of this ruling, the Irish State initiated a response to fully consider the interactions of existing and prospective aquaculture operations with the conservation features of Natura sites (i.e., Special Areas of Conservation-SAC and Special Protection Areas-SPA). A work programme was developed to include, baseline habitat data collection within Natura sites to facilitate the development of conservation objectives. In addition, research was conducted to examine bird interactions with aquaculture operations and to determine benthic impacts of oyster trestle culture among other things. In addition, outputs of independent but relevant research programmes were drawn on and reports compiled to present specific species and habitat sensitivities to pressures deriving from aquaculture operations. Risk assessments on the likely interactions between aquaculture operations and conservation features were carried out on a ‘bay-wide’ or Natura 2000 site basis and not on the basis of the individual aquaculture operations. Guidance on conducting assessments has been provided by the conservation agency in relation to SACs, but not SPAs. In addition, cumulative interactions with other activities (including fisheries) were assessed and the conclusions had a bearing on the licensing advice.

Since 2011, full risk assessments have been conducted in over 25 bays comprising 45 Natura sites (SAC and SPAs). This represents greater than 800 individual licence applications/renewals. In many instances, it has been determined that the aquaculture operations pose little or no threat to conservation features. In some instances mitigation measures (including adaptive management associated with monitoring) can allow for favourable licensing decisions and in other instances aquaculture operations are considered incompatible with conservation objectives, for example spatial overlap with sensitive habitats such as Maerl or Seagrasses. The process has allowed for a bay-wide assessment and allowed for the generation of de-facto management plans of aquaculture activities in the bays.