Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mussels colony wiped out after Delphi Bridge Repairs

Ireland's largest colony of rare freshwater pearl mussels, in the Bundorragh River in County Mayo, may have been destroyed because of repair works on a bridge near Delphi Bridge, a well known fishing retreat.

While improvement works were being carried out on the bridge during heavy rainfall last November, the river flooded and the contents of 36 sandbags spilled into the water. This smothered the young mussels 'in a matter of hours', according to a report compiled by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), a lobby group.

An estimated 2m freshwater pearl mussels out of the national population of 13m were located within 2 kilometres of the Delphi Bridge. The Bundorragh is designated for protection under the EU Habitats Directive because the mussels, thought to be Ireland's oldest surviving species, are endangered. Approximately 90% have disappeared in the past century.

The Report by Tony Lowes, a director of FIE, accuses the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Mayo County Council of failing to act on advice provided by several scientists, who recommended that the proposed works be changed or postponed until the summer to minimise the risk to the mussels.

FIE has sent the Report to the European Commission, saying that this is an example of Ireland's failure to implement the European law and has led to an 'environmental disaster' at the site.

Correspondence between the NPWS and the council, obtained by FIE under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that three scientists gave a negative assessment of the proposed repair works. Aine O'Connor, a freshwater ecologist at the NPWS and an expert on the species, said in October 2010 that plans to repair the bridge represented a 'significant and serious risk to the freshwater pearl mussel downstream'.
A revised proposal was drawn up in July 2011, but O'Connor concluded that the 'the risk to the mussels have significantly increased as a result'.
Evelyn Moorkens, an expert contacted by the Council, urged that the proposed repair be abandoned until risks to the mussel population were addressed. Paul Johnston, an engineer from Trinity College Dublin, said there 'real and significant risks from a storm event'.

Despite warnings, consent was given by the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltachta, which overseas the NPWS, for work to proceed last October. Some 117 mm of rain fell on November 17, creating a wash out at the bridge.

John Condon, Mayo's county Secretary, said the Council 'categorically rejects the content, accusations, and conclusions contained in Mr. Lowes' Report'. He said the consequences of not maintaining the Bridge would have resulted in more serious damage to the river and its environs.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht said the NPWS 'continues to be concerned about the possible impact the event may have had on the freshwater pearl mussel community, and the ongoing risk of a Bridge collapse'. A scientific survey of the mussel population 'will take place as soon as water levels permit staff to enter the river,' she said.
Ciara Kenny,
Sunday Times 12.02.12

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