Fish farms on Poros: Why the residents are against it
About 25% of the Saronic island is slated for the operation of fish farming units, which plan on increasing their activity by 670%. Municipal Authority and residents — who disagree with the plan — fear that the character of the island will change forever.
Yiannis Kapasakis has been swimming in the northern beaches of Poros ever since he can remember. He recalls how clear the water was, how his father would dive into the sea to catch octopus, and how small boats cruised the northern part of the island in the 1980s.
His childhood memories of island summers have been rekindled, 40 years later, in front of an audience of 200 people gathered in an outdoor amphitheater on the island.
Among the audience are locals, members of the local authority, activists and party officials who have been invited to express opinions on the increased fish farming activity on the island − and the prospect of its explosive expansion.
He asks the party representatives, who speak of their emotional connection to Poros, if they have visited the northern part of the island, which for decades has been occupied by fish farming units. Yiannis Kapasakis is both moved and outraged.
And he’s not the only one. A recent survey by Kapa Research (“Local community and fish farms: The cases of Poros and Methana”) on behalf of the Rauch Foundation, published in July 2023, found that the prevailing sentiments of Poros residents regarding the impending expansion of activities is anger and rage.
The survey found that 79% of residents definitely disagree with the expansion plans, and this increases to 87% when including those who answered that they probably disagree.
The main reasons for concern are, according to the research, that the expansion of fish farms will negatively affect the environment, tourism and seawater quality.
Poros says no to fish farms
Poros is a small Saronic island with a population of no more than 4,000. Its port is located on the southern part of the island. And as early as June 2023, when Solomon was on the island before the tourist season had even begun, it hosted an endless line of luxury yachts.
The local economy relies heavily on these arrivals: in 2022, around 18,000 boats passed through its port. Due to the proximity of the island to Athens, Poros is usually the first stop for boats before they continue on to the Cyclades.
We spoke with the outgoing mayor of Poros, Yiannis Dimitriadis, who characterized the island as a “yachting arrival center”. He believes that, by upgrading the infrastructure of the port, the island could attract even more boats that will remain in port longer.
“Without OADA, we have a lot of tourist traffic, especially in the summer. The island is on autopilot,” commented Dimitriadis.
Indeed, an economy clearly oriented around tourism flourishes around the port: restaurants advertise Mediterranean cuisine in English and shops sell souvenirs.
But a walk along the harbor is enough for even non-Greek visitors to sense the turmoil on the island.
Large banners with the messages “No fish farms, no OADA on Poros” and “NO to the creation of a fishery industrial zone” cover the neoclassical building of Syngrou on the coastal road, while in various parts of the port signs in English, inform visitors of the imminent expansion of fish farms.
Poros as a testing ground for the entire country
The first fish farms on Poros began operating in the 1990s. Until 2011, when the Special Planning Framework for Aquaculture was established (Government Gazette 2505/B/4-11-2011), these units were licensed under a governing board that was subsequently declared illegal by the Council of State.
But beyond the management of the already-existing aquaculture units throughout the country, the 2011 Government Gazette also set the framework for further development, introducing the status of Organized Aquaculture Development Areas (OADA).
With the new zoning, a total of 25 regions are defined throughout Greece in which OADAs are established and the overall national productivity is set to skyrocket.
Significant sections of the Greek coastline are being converted into zones of exclusive exploitation by aquaculture companies, excluding other activities such as tourism or livestock breeding.
It is an aggressive privatization plan, where significant parts of the sea and shoreline will be leased to companies to set up, among other things, production units, warehouses and packaging facilities.
And although the Ministry of Development declared in the Multi-Year National Strategic Plan for the Development of Aquaculture (2021-2030) that aquaculture is “one of the main pillars of the Strategy for Blue Development”, researchers, activists and members of the local community speak of an industry that has disastrous consequences on the environment and people.
Poros is a testing ground for fish farming in Greece. On the one hand, once the Presidential Decree is issued that will establish the OADA in the area, fish farms will occupy 25% of the island, specifically its most pristine part. On the other hand, the local authority and the residents have put up a tough and long-lasting resistance to the expansion plans.
What does OADA mean for Poros?
Today, four fish farms on the island produce sea bream and sea bass. All the units now belong to the multinational Avramar, the company that was created by the financial collapse and subsequent merger of the once-powerful industry giants, namely the Andromeda Group, Nireas, Selonda, and Perseus.
Avramar “combines the best of Greek fish”, but it is not of Greek interests. It is jointly owned by the investment company AMERRA Capital Management, LLC, based in the USA, and the powerful Mubadala Investment fund of Abu Dhabi, and currently controls about 70% of Greek production.
If the OADA is approved on the island, there will be an expansion of the existing units, while the installation of new units is also expected. In particular, the area that has been allocated to date for fish farming activity will increase 28 times and the production is estimated to increase by approximately 670%, with an annual production of 8,831 tons from the current 1,147 tons.
To ensure the increased production defined by the establishment of the OADA, 25% of the island, and specifically the northern part, which is currently covered by a rich pine forest, is planned to be set aside.
According to the legislation, the fish farming units that establish OADA are granted exclusive use of the allocated area. The companies also establish an OADA management body — in the case of the Poros OADA, this role corresponds to Avramar.
But the residents we met with on Poros estimate that the effects of the establishment of OADA will not be limited to the northern part. They believe that, with the OADA, Poros will turn into a fishery industrial zone and the island will lose its character.
They perceive fish farming as an industry that competes with tourism − an industry that produces an income which most island residents depend on. It is estimated that 80% of the inhabitants of Poros are employed in the tourist sector.
It is no coincidence that, in the survey by Kapa Research, of the total population active in tourism, 82% answered that they completely disagree with the plans to expand fish farms.
The objections to the OADA are not limited to the effects on the island’s character and economy. The Poros Municipal Council argues that if the plans go ahead, the environmental footprint of the fish farms will correspond to a city of 33,500 inhabitants: it is estimated that the units will produce a daily total of around 15 tons of organic waste, with immediate deterioration of water quality.
Liquid waste may include, among other things, chemicals/pharmaceuticals often used in fish farms. Such as formalin, a toxic and carcinogenic substance, which fish farm workers told Solomon is used to prevent disease transmission inside the cages, especially in cases where there is overcrowding.
In 2011, an audit by the Special Environmental Inspectors showed that 77 tons of formalin had been used over a period of 2.5 years in the fish farming units of Poros. The company DIAS Aquaculture S.A. had stated at the time that it used formalin exclusively for the preservation of dead fish and for spraying the nets, however, large amounts of formalin were found in the atmosphere, sea and soil.
The Piraeus First Instance Prosecutor’s Office has filed a criminal prosecution against the company.
The Strategic Environmental Impact Study
When the special zoning for aquaculture was passed in 2011, more than 100 bodies appealed to the Council of State. Among the applicants were municipalities, associations, but also some Syriza MPs.
The Council of State deemed the decision legal with the acting President of the Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, as rapporteur. And on Poros the residents remember that, as a government, Syriza finally voted to extend the zoning, giving companies in the sector the opportunity to apply for the establishment of other OADAs. Syriza did not respond to Solomon’s questions regarding their positions on the establishment of the OADA on Poros and the conditions for the development of the fish farming industry.
In 2015, the first proposal for an OADA on Poros was made. In the same year, a Strategic Environmental Impact Study (SEIS) and a technical report were drawn up. The latter concluded that the OADA will stimulate the local economy by retaining the local population, especially the youth, and that the environmental impacts only concern the defined areas.
The technical report was undertaken by Ambio. In a joint letter of the mayors of Poros and Xiromeros in October 2020, Ambio is presented as a long-term partner of fish farming companies. On its website, as of late October 2023, Ambio lists 50 companies in the sector as its customers.
At a meeting of the board of directors of the Central Union of Municipalities of Greece in December 2020, Yiannis Dimitriadis challenged the Deputy Minister of Spatial Planning and Urban Environment, Dimitris Oikonomou, stating that Oikonomou had been a researcher for the OADA of Poros on behalf of Ambio − a study which he was then called upon to approve as Deputy Minister.
In the context of the consultation regarding the SEIS for the OADA, the outgoing Poros Municipal Authority drafted a resolution in which it gave a negative opinion, attempting to refute the arguments in favor of the OADA presented in the study.
The resolution states that on Poros there are submarine canyons (underwater steep-sided valleys) called Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass species which are an important part of the ecosystem. Indeed, activities such as aquaculture have been linked to the destruction of Posidonia oceanica.
A study published in 2007 states that “the exponential growth of aquaculture production in the Mediterranean over the last two decades has caused various environmental problems, which are less evident in the water and more in the sediment near the cages, such as organic matter, the accumulation of nitrogen and phosphorus […] and the degradation of marine flora”.
Just one employee from Poros
The very possibility of OADA to employ young people on the island is being questioned. Sources told Solomon of all the fish farm employees on Poros, only one of them is actually from Poros.
And the passing of a memorandum of cooperation for the employment of third-country nationals between the Ministry of Rural Development & Food and the Ministry of Migration & Asylum with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), indicates a reduced interest in labor for the sector.
In 2020, and after the Ministry of the Environment published the SEIS for the OADA for public debate, Yiannis Dimitriadis sent a memorandum to the minister at the time, Kostas Hatzidakis, summarizing the reasons why Poros is unsuitable for a fishery industrial zone.
Speaking to Solomon, the outgoing mayor says that the relevant agency claimed that it never received the memo, even though he received a protocol number when it was sent.
The Ministry of Environment did not respond to Solomon’s questions about the OADA of Poros. According to an April 2023 informational statement by the Ministry, approval is pending by two of its agencies (Central Council for Spatial Issues and Disputes & Central Council of Urban Planning and Disputes) for the establishment of OADA.
The Poseidon study
In June 2023, Poseidon Resource Management, a Dublin-based sustainable fisheries and aquaculture consulting firm, (commissioned by the Rauch Foundation and the NGO Katheti) reviewed Ambio’s SEIS, which approved the establishment of an OADA on Poros.
In the study, seen by Solomon, Poseidon researchers identified serious weaknesses in the original SEIS: “Independent consultants to Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd concluded that the report [pp. of Ambio] does not fully cover what one would expect to be covered in an environmental (and social) impact study at a local level”.
Specifically, Poseidon’s report found that Ambio’s SEIS downplays the environmental impact of the OADA, specifically how seawater quality will be negatively affected by the units’ waste. According to the researchers, the SEIS still fails to quantify the number and size of facilities on land and thus the infrastructure required for expansion, such as electricity and water needs.
“It is impossible to draw any solid conclusion about how the landscape will be affected if these facilities and sites are not quantified,” the Poseidon report reads.
Finally, the Poseidon report states that Ambio’s study does not take into account the impact on tourism and avoids describing measures to reduce environmental and social impacts in the area.
How does OADA Poros respond?
Solomon addressed questions to Ambio arising from the Poseidon report. Ambio informed us that our questions will be answered by the managing body of the OADA Poros (in actuality, the company Avramar).
About the validity of the study, the OADA of Poros replied that it is a “comprehensive and technical text” based on forecast models compatible with the Mediterranean environment and on-site measurements by Hellenic Centre for Marine Research.
He also emphasized that “the study assesses the effects and examines them, taking into consideration the limits and restrictions set by the National and Union legislation” and, therefore, that “there is a quantification and evaluation of all the effects”.
“Therefore, there is no gap in the relevant study regarding the effects of the entire activity of fish farms in the specific area,” concludes the OADA of Poros.
The organization also argued that there is no conflict of interest regarding the responsibilities of Dimitris Oikonomou, as his collaboration with the engineering company Ambio was four years before his term as deputy minister began.
Another analysis by independent consultants HR&A Advisors, Inc, on behalf of the Rauch Foundation and the NGO Katheti, compares the impact of fish farming with that of tourism, and “makes it clear that the two industries are incompatible and that future development of the island is in tourism”.
“Even current tourism,” it says, “has three times the economic impact and provides five times the employment income and five times the number of full-time jobs than maximum planned fish farms.”
Eva Douzina, president of the Rauch Foundation, told Solomon: “The reality of open cage fish farming is that its cost to the environment far outweighs any benefit to communities, especially those that depend on nature for tourism, like Poros”.
It is of interest that, according to the provisions of the zoning plan, on the basis of which the OADA of Poros is established, the developed tourist activity on the island seems to prevent the development of fish farms. Specifically, Article 7 of the zoning plan states:
“The zoning of new marine aquaculture units should be avoided in areas characterized as developed for tourism or of great interest for the development of marine tourism.”
New Municipal Authority
Since the eve of the 2014 elections, when he was the head of the minority as well as the head of the national coordinating committee of municipalities and agencies against the special zoning for fish farms, the outgoing mayor of Poros, Yiannis Dimitriadis, had taken a clear position against the expansion of fish farming activity.
Before the first round of the national elections in May, Dimitriadis was invited to speak on TV news shows regarding a post he made on social media, calling on the residents of Poros to abstain from voting.
“What changed was that the spotlight was suddenly on us even for one day and this very serious issue was discussed both on Poros and throughout Greece,” he commented to OPEN TV about his post.
In the October municipal elections, Giorgos Koutouzis was elected the new mayor of Poros with a percentage of 55.74%. Koutouzis has been an elected municipal councilor since 2014 and has served as deputy mayor for seven years.
Speaking to Solomon, Koutouzis expressed the intention of the new Municipal Authority to take initiatives against the establishment of the OADA.
The new Municipal Authority, stated Koutouzis, is against the expansion of fish farms with the OADA of Poros, and “with the prospect of the closure of already-existing units.”