Seabed survey is overdue, over budget and incomplete

A survey of the Irish seabed commissioned by the government is set to be at least €50m over budget, 20 years overdue and missing the most relevant information. By Sara Burke

A national seabed survey commissioned by the government in 1999 to cost €26.3m and to be completed by the end of 2005, is already €8m over budget, will not be completed for a further 20 years and will wind up (at the latest estimate) costing €80m.

In April 1999, the government approved a proposal from the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI) to undertake a complete survey of the entire Irish seabed. It was agreed that this survey, known as the Irish National Seabed Survey (INSS), would be carried out over seven years and at a cost of €26.3m. At the end of the seven years (December 2005), the project to date has cost €34.4 million and will take decades longer to complete.

The GSI had overall responsibility for the management and direction of the survey. The GSI is a sub-section of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (in 1999, it was a sub-section of the Department of Public Enterprise, Marine and Natural Resources). The survey had a steering group, an advisory committee and scientific and management consultants.

Ireland's seabed is over 850,000sq km (Ireland's land mass is 84,000sq km). Mapping the Irish seabed is important for the management and planning of our natural resources, fisheries and sea safety. Ireland has approximately 14 per cent of European water and, up to 1999, very little of this was mapped.

For mapping purposes, the seabed is divided into three zones: zone one is water depths less than 50 metres; zone two is water depths between 50 and 200 metres; zone three is water depths greater than 200 metres. The data collected from the survey is made available free of charge for research and education and is available to commercial interests at a cost. Currently there are about 50 doctorate and post-doctorates working on the data. It was the first survey of its kind globally.

During 1999, the survey's steering committee decided to postpone any decision in relation to surveying zone one – the shallowest seabed area and that closest to land. Surveying shallow waters is much more expensive and time-consuming than surveying deeper waters. By the end of 2005, 453,046sq km were surveyed – over half of the total seabed area. Yet 78 per cent of zone two and 93.4 per cent of zone one – the areas which are much more time-consuming, expensive and relevant – remained unsurveyed. Zone one and two are a priority because they are closer to land and provide the information most pertinent to both policy and planning for natural resources fisheries and sea safety fisheries.

As early as December 1999, the scientific consultants involved in the project warned that the total survey of the Irish seabed could not be achieved within the allocated budget and that the cost of surveying zone two would be considerably higher than originally envisaged. At no point prior to December 2005 did the GSI or the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources inform the government of its decision not to survey zone one, the extended budget or the timeframe overrun.

Brendan Touhy, the secretary general of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, in his presentation to the Public Accounts Committee on the seabed survey on 19 October, explained that it was GSI's view (and therefore the department's) that zone one was not included as part of the survey. Touhy acknowledged that the area of 865,000 sq km "amounted to an aspirational area; it was never going to be the size of the area we would map". He said: "We must put our hands up and say that we did not comprehend that zone one... was part of the survey... there was no intention to mislead, but the language in the original memo was vague and there were different interpretations."

Yet, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General's 2005 annual report, the GSI's proposal, approved by the government in April 1999, was for "a complete survey of the entire Irish seabed from the shore out". This was reinforced by a 2005 government memorandum which restates this agreement.Irish seabed map

Touhy acknowledged at the Public Accounts Committee that if zone one was meant to be part of the survey from the beginning, then "the cost and timescale of the project were seriously underestimated". Touhy also highlights that the 1999 government memorandum specified the need to undertake detailed design and planning work and it was this exercise which highlighted the higher costs needed to carry out work in zone two. Subsequent to this, a revised budget of €33m was agreed between INSS and government. Touhy also highlighted how such a seabed-mapping exercise was pioneering in its scale and the technologies used, how it was the first of its kind globally, how at the time of initiation more was known about the surface of Mars than the Irish seabed – so costs and timeframes could have been wrongly estimated initially. He also states that when compared to countries where similar work was carried out, "the INSS represented very good value for money".

Despite investigations by the Comptroller and Auditor General highlighting the vast budgetary and timescale overrun, nobody, nor any section of the Department of the Marine, is being held to account for the multimillion overrun and the incompletion of the project to date.

As the work of the initial national seabed survey was not finished in November 2005, the government adopted a new programme – called Integrated Mapping for Sustainable Development of Ireland's Marine Resources (Infomar) – which is to continue and conclude the seabed survey. The GSI and the Irish Marine Institute, who were also involved in the initial seabed survey, are in charge of Infomar.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, John Purcell, said that it would be preferable to complete the current Infomar survey by 2013 in line with the National Development Plan, however it is estimated it will take 20 years and €80m to complete.