Toxic denial

Oct 15

Toxic denial

October 16th 2022

Denial remains a prevailing feature of the faltering approach to our collapsing biosphere. Outright climate denial has ceased to be a standard feature of debates even if it hasn’t completely disappeared. Extinction denial hasn’t been so noticeable but that is likely due to the fact that biodiversity loss has not received nearly as much attention as climate change. Now that is changing as pressure builds on politicians to move from talking about these problems to actually doing something about them.

Take marine protected areas (MPAs) for instance. Recent years have seen the publication of an expert report, a public consultation which showed near unanimous support for the idea and political commitments to reach 30% of our territorial seas designated as MPAs by 2030. Taoiseach Micheál Martin was even happy to be photographed with the Fair Seas team at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis recently to show his support.

While there has still been no progress on publishing actual legislation that is needed to progress this goal, delay is getting harder. Indeed, a recent report[1] presented to Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, contains a robust section on MPAs. Meanwhile the fishing industry, which had been fairly quiet about MPAs up to now, are responding. Needless to say, they’re not supportive. What’s more, their opposition is rooted in a general denial of facts.

For instance, CEO of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, Patrick Murphy, wrote recently for the magazine of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group that the industry was “wrongfully accused of “overfishing” ” (inserting his own inverted commas to suggest overfishing is not even a real thing) adding that they are “unfairly compared with the entire aviation industry on the basis that their fishing activities release carbon sediment from the sea floor, when, in fact, all such sediment gradually resettles on the sea floor”. Murphy was referring to the scientific study published in 2021 which showed that bottom trawling releases the same amount of greenhouse gases as the aviation industry (recent scientific evidence shows that overfishing remains a prevalent feature of fishing in the north-east Atlantic, affecting around 40% of commercial fish populations).

But Murphy’s industry colleague, chairman of the Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance, Cormac Burke, went even further, telling the Marine Times this month that creating a network of MPA’s in Irish waters was “far from logical” and that “the operations of the Irish fishing industry, not now or ever, has been a threat to sharks, seabirds or animals threatened with extinction”. Burke should look at what ICES says about the seas around Ireland, including that:

Several species have been depleted by fishing in the past and are now on the OSPAR list of threatened and declining species, including spurdog (Squalus acanthias), the common skate complex (Dipturus spp.), angel shark (Squatina squatina), porbeagle (Lamna nasus), and some deep-water shark

ICES also details how fishing activity results in bycatch of dolphins, seals and seabirds including puffins and guillemots.

Toxic denialism is increasingly evident within some of the farming organisations. Over the summer I took part in a debate with representatives of the Irish Farmers’ Association and the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA) on the theme of upland management. I didn’t expect them to agree with me that free-roaming sheep should be removed from the hills, but I was quite shocked at their unwillingness to accept the dire state of our uplands.

Over-grazing, I was told, was not a widespread problem and ‘under-grazing’ was a greater threat to biodiversity. This is despite the fact that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), in their 2019 assessment of habitats listed for protection under the Habitats Directive, has assessed all of the upland habitats as in ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ condition with overgrazing being identified as a significant pressure on all of them. Under-grazing was not considered by the NPWS to be a threat on any of the bog or heath habitats.

This week the Irish Independent ran a particularly incendiary article on upland farming which lashed out at people from Dublin, ecologists and people with PhDs for wanting to “cleanse the whole countryside” and included a quote from one Connemara farmer which accused the NPWS of “tightening that noose” around his neck. “When I ask Joe”, the article went on, “after a lifetime of looking at his hills, how he would rate their environmental condition, he says they are “in good shape”. “In fact, in a few places, it could take extra sheep”.”

This article, and others like it, reflect a sense of betrayal among farmers with designated land for the dire communication, the mapping of their land without their consent and the failure of the State to meaningfully reward them for protecting our most important biodiversity sites. This is something for which there is a lot of sympathy.

It is also something that is being addressed by a multi-million euro programme in the new Common Agriculture Policy which gives preferential treatment to farmers along the western seaboard as well as other upland areas – something that didn’t get a mention in the Irish Independent article.

The on-going denialism among fishing and farming groups is bad enough, but actually it reflects government policy. The biggest denier of them all is the minister for agriculture himself. Despite the fact that indicators continue to point in the wrong direction McConalogue travelled to the Far East last month where he said his key message was that “Irish suckler, beef and sheep farmers produce a world class, sustainable and healthy product”. He delivered this message while standing in front of a lectern emblazoned with the phrase: “Ireland, working with nature”. He has also photographed himself for his Twitter feed guzzling a glass of milk and hailing “our safe, sustainable and nutritious dairy products.

In recent weeks he opposed moves by the European Commission to close sensitive deep sea areas off the Irish coast to harmful fishing methods, including bottom trawling. I was told his excuse was that he wanted to wait for new data on fishing activity in these areas, despite the fact that the closures were first agreed in 2018. This is denialism in action, not to mention an afront to public opinion and his own government’s policy.

Refusing to accept that we have a problem, or refusing to accept the scale of the problem, or that now is the time to act, or that we are the ones that need to act, remains the greatest barrier to meaningful progress. Farm and fishing interests don’t do themselves any favours by sticking with this course, but to see senior ministers like McConalogue at it goes a long way to explaining why we are not getting a grip on this crisis.

[1] The Irish Wildlife Trust and Coastwatch represented the Environmental Pillar on the review group