Fear and loathing close a fish farm in Cyprus


By JOHN STANSELL A marine fish farm in Cyprus is still under a closure order imposed by the government, despite four scientific studies that clear the farm of its alleged crime. The island’s Council of Ministers imposed the closure order last July because local politicians and hoteliers – powerful lobbyists in tourism-dependent Cyprus – were convinced that the farm, known as Telia Aqua Marine, was the cause of an infestation of an unpleasant and slimy weed called Cladophora along the popular beaches of Ayia Napa. The council issued the order despite studies by its own fisheries department and two British groups that cleared the farm. Last October, a fourth report by a Finnish firm of consultants also absolved the farm of blame. Two of the foreign scientists that had earlier cleared the Telia Aqua farm, marine biologists Donald Baird and James Muir from Stirling University, began work in Cyprus last December on an FAO-backed development plan for aquaculture in the Greek part of the island. The fisheries department gave Telia Aqua a clean bill of health after the weed was first detected in 1989. But opponents of the farm, led by local mayor Nicos Vlitis, were not convinced. They continued to insist that the farm, 10 kilometres to the west of Ayia Napa, was to blame and called for its closure. In 1990, Baird and Muir were asked to investigate. Both are well known internationally for their expertise in marine aquaculture and its effects on the marine environment. They not only cleared the farm, but also urged that the agricultural area near Ayia Napa, where farmers apply large amounts of nitrate fertilisers to their fields, should be studied. Baird and Muir found that the nitrate levels in the sea off the farm were one twentieth of those in Ayia Napa bay, and that the nearest outcrop of Cladophora was more than a kilometre away from the farm. They also found no sign of the weed in the sea and on the rocks near the farm’s outflow pipe. For 80 per cent of the year the sea current off the farm flowed westwards, away from Ayia Napa. Despite the evidence, the farm’s opponents redoubled their calls for the farm to be closed, backed by local press and media hostile to the fish farmer. Then Roger Apostolides, owner and founder of the Telia Aqua farm, called in Robert Hughes of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. His assessment agreed with the earlier ones, but he also urged an investigation of the sewage disposal methods applied by the hotels in Ayia Napa, because levels of nitrates and sewage bacteria in the bay were very high. This analysis brought the hoteliers’ association into the fray. Its members were concerned that evidence of sewage in the sea would further damage their trade, which had already been hit by the Gulf War. Allegations of malpractice and vested interests by the scientists were published in the Greek-Cypriot newspapers and aired on television. One allegation – that the Stirling team had shares in Telia Aqua – prompted Baird and Muir to threaten legal action. Last summer, Apostolides was warned of a bomb on his farm, and told to close the farm for the sake of his family. Finally, last July, the Cyprus Council of Ministers bowed to the pressure from villagers and some hoteliers and ordered the farm to be closed. The decision sparked protests by aquaculturists and marine biologists all over Europe. Many, concerned that the government’s action might damage the emerging European marine aquaculture industry, urged it to reconsider. The government agreed to a further study, and commissioned the Finnish group Soil and Water to investigate. Its report also cleared the farm, increasing the government’s embarrassment. The farm is situated on the British Sovereign Base Area, and its administrators remain reluctant to close the farm in the absence of evidence that it caused the problem. While the politicians prevaricated, nature stepped in. Cladophora has a two-year growth cycle, and the infestation vanished in the autumn. The beleaguered farmer is still in limbo,
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