Researchers reported about a “desolation scenario” around sea bream and sea bass farms in Western Greece

Yellowed underwater meadows, collapsed wild fish populations, dead zones. This is how scientists from the Archipelagos Institute for the Protection of the Sea described the desolation they found while researching fish farms in Western Greece.

Researchers from the Greek scientific body outlined the slow agony suffered by a stretch of sea between the Aetolia-Acarnania region and the Ionian Islands, an area that The Ferret investigated in March 2021.

Since the late 1980s sea bass and sea bream farms have proliferated here, making this tiny part of the Mediterranean one of the main centres of the fish farming industry in Europe.

“Aquaculture activities have produced heavy repercussions on marine ecosystems,” concluded the Archipelagos researchers.

They conducted field research in June on the coast of the Aetolia-Acarnania region in order to assess the health of the ecosystems, collecting images and samples from the waters and the seabed around the farms.

“The preliminary results of the study reveal a dead landscape, with marine ecosystems damaged by the fish farming activities that have persisted there for decades,” the researchers said at a workshop on 28 June to present their preliminary results.

The study confirms the perception of the inhabitants and fishermen of the islands and villages that overlook this stretch of sea. They have long talked about heavily damaged seabeds and wildlife population collapses.

“When you build a large cage in an enclosed sea area like this, where even fishing should be banned, there are consequences”, says Tef Karfakis, a marine biologist, head of the campaign group, Terra Sylvestris, based in Kalamos Island.

For years Karfakis has denounced the impact of fish farming on the delicate balance of this stretch of the Mediterranean, where there are three Natura 2000 protected marine areas.

“When the fish choose a stretch of the seabed as a spawning area, they do so because they find very specific environmental characteristics. You can’t interfere by putting a fish farm in that place, or you will compromise that balance,” claims Karfakis.

Several studies have measured the impact of fish farms on the surrounding ecosystems, due to spillages of uneaten feed and animal waste. One 2011 study estimated that for every 100 tons of fish produced, nine tons of polluting nitrates are released into the sea.

Asked to comment on the findings by the Archipelagos Institute, the Hellenic Aquaculture Producers Organisation (HAPO) said that “as a rule, the effect of fish farming on the quality of the water is minimal and concerns the accumulation mainly of food residues and faeces in the seabed exactly under the cages.”

According to the industry body, the fish farms in the area “comply with all the strictest EU regulations regarding the preservation of the environment and animal welfare”.

Greece is the main European grower of sea bass and sea bream, producing 150 thousand tonnes in 2019. According to the latest industry report, 83 per cent is destined for export, with most going to Italy and Spain and some to the UK.

Almost a third of Greek production is concentrated in Aetolia-Acarnania and between the Ionian islands. The Greek government is planning a major expansion over 16,000 hectares of sea.

“We oppose this project which dedicates 4,000 hectares to fish farms on the stretch of coast between the towns of Astakos and Mytikas,” said Giannis Triantaphyllakis, mayor of Xiromero, in the Aetolia-Acarnania region.

In recent years the local opposition has been fuelled by a series of leaks from a former worker of the industry. He claimed to expose the frequent use of large amounts of the cancer-causing chemical, formaldehyde, to treat parasites in the cages.

“We used to put in a huge amount to fight a parasite that lurks in the gills and feeds on the blood of fish, causing health problems and bleaching the gills,” said Christos Loverdos Stelakatos, a former employee of one of the main Greek fish farming companies.

His accounts have been disputed by the industry, which pointed out that frequent use of formaldehyde in fish farms is not prohibited in Greece. “The use of a medication that contains processed formaldehyde is permitted, applied as an antiparasitic agent, when it is considered necessary for the fishes health and prescribed by a licensed veterinarian”, the HAPO fish farmers association told The Ferret.

“Food safety is not compromised in any way as this agent is not absorbed by the flesh of the fish. For this reason the European Food Safety Authority has not imposed limits for possible residuals on fish flesh.”

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