The Annacotty Weir Campaign will continue!

On 5th of May 2021, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan TD announced that Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) is to lead “on the Annacotty weir fish passage improvement project”. The press release can be found here. Although I welcome any statement and commitment to address the relation to fish passage issues at Annacotty weir, I have concerns in relation to how this press release was issued and some of its contents.

My concerns are that the announcement does not include any commitment for funding and it makes no mention of actually considering removing the weir. Moreover, despite stating that the project will include “enhanced community engagement” and a “collaborate” approach, the almost 8,000 people who signed the petition have not been acknowledged. I have never been contacted. The statement sets a marker that IFI will “lead” on this project. I am concerned that the statement was made to ensure that IFI would keep control of any future project – and avoid a volunteer community-based lead. This press release was clearly made in response to the petition that I started during March 2021 – which quickly attracted thousands of signatures. However, there is no recognition of this campaign and what it achieved in the statement. It was the campaign and all the support that it received that lead to the ministerial statement.

There can be no project without funding – and there was no announcement about any money being allocated to this. If the campaign stops raising the fish passage issues will anything really be done in the end? There are hundreds of weirs on rivers across Ireland that are causing similar fish passage problems. So why was this weir singled out for a ministerial statement? The only reason that Annacotty weir is now a priority of Minister Ryan is that it is the nearest fish migration barrier to my house, and I am running a successful campaign about it.

Annacotty weir on the River Mulkear, March 2021

A genuine collaborate approach is what is required here if the end aim is really to restore fish passage. However, I have never been contacted by IFI or the Green Party in relation to this. I have been researching and highlighting the fish passage problems at this site for over 7 years, I set up this successful petition, and I am local resident near Annacotty weir. The first people that I contacted when I started the petition were my local Green Party representatives – but they ignored my emails and have never engaged with me on this. So I am concerned that the press release was more about trying to disarm the campaign – rather than aiming to address the issues that I have been raising. There can be no collaborate approach without communication.

The press release made no mention of actually looking at removing the weir. This is the key measure for restoring fish migration and has to be considered. There are a very small number of local people that are currently against removing the weir – and I understand and respect that. There will need to be extensive consultation and assessment when selecting a suitable solution here. The petition also includes a proposal for modifying the weir. This may well be the chosen option – but all options will need to be to be considered in relation to fish passage efficacy, engineering feasibility, environmental impact, community acceptance, and cost. But it is feasible to remove the weir – the weir serves no purpose and as it was installed in the 1990s it has no heritage value. The best option for restoring fish passage is weir removal and this option has to be considered.

Illustration by Chris Moody highlighting the fish passage problems at Annacotty weir. River Lamprey migration is totally blocked.

It would be of significant benefit to IFI to fully engage fully with local environmental groups to help bring projects like this forward. They have yet to implement a successful fish passage project for non-salmonid species. They are mainly an angling-tourism focused organization that had responsibility for certain Annex II species added to their brief. Responsibility for Lampreys and Shad was originally vested with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) – but this was taken back by IFI. But it makes no sense having different aquatic Qualifying Interests of the same Natura 2000 sites being managed by different state departments and agencies. There are also no “fisheries” for lampreys species in Ireland – and never have been.

IFI are underfunded of course – but the problems with how our rivers are being managed do not all come down to funding. Indeed IFI already had €1.75 million of EU LIFE funds available to sort the lamprey passage problem at Annacotty weir out – but failed to do this.

Despite stating that the project will include “enhanced community engagement” and a “collaborate” approach, the almost 8,000 people who signed the petition have not been acknowledged

The Green Party have arguably done good work in government and I am reluctant to criticise them. I voted for them and would be a natural supporter. However, my experience of dealing with local Green Party politicians has not been favourable. I contacted my local Green Party councillor and TD at the very start of the Annacotty weir campaign – but I was ignored. When a motion to remove Annacotty weir was brought up at the Climate Action, Biodiversity and Environment SPC meeting in Limerick Council in April the Green Party councillor – and incredibly the local Rivers Trust representative – would not support it. Yet three weeks later we had the Green Party leader and minister making a national statement committing to addressing the fish passage problems at the weir. If the statement was genuine then why was I ignored and why would they not support this motion at the SPC meeting?

I believe that the Maigue Rivers Trust did not support the motion to remove the weir at Annacotty as there are 12 similar Office of Public Works (OPW) weirs on the River Maigue. The Maigue Rivers Trust were protecting the OPW and their funding, and the Green Party councillor was apparently protecting IFI. Annacotty weir is controversial due to the substantial amount of money that was previously available for addressing fish passage at this site.

Sea Lamprey on the River Mulkear downstream of Annacotty weir. Their migration is still blocked so the campaign will continue.

But the Green Party and Minister Ryan do have a checkered history when it comes to dealing with fish passage issues on the Lower River Shannon. In 2009 as Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan banned traditional sustainable eel fishing so that the ESB would be allowed to continue killing critically endangered eels in their hydroelectric turbines. Ireland’s Eel Management Plan was designed to allow ESB to continue to operate business as usual. Hundreds of eel fishermen were taken off the rivers and lakes of Ireland so that ESB would not have to make any compromise under the Eel Regulation. These traditional fishermen had a huge potential role in helping restore eel stocks and fish passage.

On the River Severn in the UK, eel fishermen have moved millions of elvers upstream past weirs and other migration barriers. Working with traditional fishermen was another highly significant but missed opportunity for “enhanced community engagement” and a “collaborate” approach on fish passage in Ireland. Instead this connection between people and river though the ancient tradition of eel fishing has been lost – to allow the ESB to continue to operate hydroelectric stations like Ardnacrusha as if it was the 1930s. We now have no traditional eel fishing in Ireland thanks to the Green Party and this represents a lost opportunity to undertake community-based conservation work like the Sustainable Eel Group are doing. Traditional sustainable eel fishing was worth saving its own right also – and is of significant cultural importance and is a living heritage. As the Sustainable Eel Group have shown by working with local communities and eel fishermen the decline of the European eel can be reversed. In Ireland eel fishing is banned and people who want to contribute to conservational projects are being ignored, marginalized, and alienated.  

Irelands hydroelectric stations may provide CO2 emission free electricity – but these stations are far from green. We have a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis – the two go hand in hand – but we have full control when it comes to rewilding and restoring our biodiversity. What the Green Party did to the eel fishermen to protect the ESB was not fair. The fisherman never received compensation. We are used to seeing our state agencies circling the wagons to protect each other but it is disappointing to see the Green Party also working to protect vested interests like the ESB – and in the current case, IFI.

But it is not too late to change this of course – and we need to restore the connection between local communities and our rivers. Traditions and living heritage are worth saving also and – as SEG have shown – fish passage projects and river rewilding projects benefit significantly from full engagement with people on the ground. There is no reason why we can’t replicate the conservation work being done by SEG on rivers like the Shannon – this would benefit migratory fish and local communities. We need real community engagement and genuine partnerships – not the secretive undemocratic club called ‘Shannon Fisheries Partnership’ which is anything but a “partnership” and is again only there to provide the illusion of engagement.

Modifications to allow lamprey passage at the IFI crump weir immediately upstream of Annacotty weir will also be required.

Despite my recent pause with campaigning, almost 8,000 people have signed the Annacotty weir petition to date. This campaign has overwhelming local support with many people, including myself, willing to work on a volunteer basis to get this done. The campaign will resume again and will seek to have a true “collaborate” approach. Obviously state agencies like IFI have to be involved – but we should all be working together. This approach can then be used as template to address other barriers access Ireland – which was a stated objective of the campaign.

Genuine engagement and transparency needs to start now – both for Annacotty weir and the major fish passage problems on the Lower River Shannon which are caused by the operation of the ESB hydroelectric scheme. There are hundreds of fish migration barriers across Ireland that need to be dealt with – and much of this work can be done though real community engagement. Last week the Sea Lampreys arrived at Annacotty weir and their migration is blocked. So I am going to resume this campaign and continue until the work is actually done – and then focus on the other fish migration barriers in the Lower River Shannon.  

The campaign has been immensely successful to date by getting this weir noticed on the national level – and I want to thank everyone who has supported the work so far. The almost 8,000 people have signed the petition is unprecedented for a local fish passage project – and indeed this has received international attention. Let’s see if we can get it to 10,000 signatures and get IFI, OPW, and Green Party actually talking to local people about this rather than issuing press releases. There needs to be funding put in place for the Annacotty weir project – which can include crowd funding and volunteer work. We need to have a series of community-led collaborative river restoration projects in Ireland. Removing fish passage barriers is the most cost-effective way to restore biodiversity in our rivers. There is no hidden agenda here – only working together for the common good that will come from rewilding and restoring our rivers.

Please sign the petition here if you have not done so already.

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