Why we worry about defaunation

As the cancer of environmental degradation eats away at our future, all we’re getting from authorities is self-serving industry spin

The living ocean is a personal passion of Hobart scientist Lisa Gershwin, so a month ago she readily agreed to convey some of that passion to a group of people bothered by the state of Tasmanian coastal waters.

Her message to her Extinction Rebellion audience in Hobart’s Franklin Square on 3 October was about marine defaunation, or “the winnowing away of animal life” – a decades-long decline in numbers of fish and other species that is already having a dramatic impact on the coastal ecosystem.

“We could do something about it,” she said, “if only we bothered to notice… The species are still there to be recorded during surveys, but their reduced numbers function as mere ghosts in an ecosystem that is essentially the walking dead, just waiting for inevitable collapse.”

She told her audience about warming waters killing off East Coast kelp forests that had been home to a host of species including crayfish and abalone. She talked of regular blooms of toxic algae around Tasman Peninsula, of an introduced bioluminescent species wiping out native fauna, and of a 2011 scientific survey that found no native species – none at all – living in the Derwent Estuary.

She urged listeners to take these things seriously. “If you like fishing, you should be worried. If you like diving, you should be worried. If you care about vibrant, biodiverse, resilient, unpolluted water, you should be worried. If you love Tasmania, you should be worried. I’m worried.”

Her 150-strong audience of climate activists carried that worry into their subsequent “Dead Sea March” along Hobart streets. Twenty-seven of them – many under 18 years old – lay down on a busy intersection and refused to move when police directed them to. All were arrested and charged.

Gershwin, a highly-credentialled marine biologist internationally known for her work on jellyfish, also spoke of the impact of salmon farming in south-eastern waters – of waste clogging the gills of fish and other marine animals and stimulating bigger, more frequent algal and jellyfish blooms.

Many Channel residents understand exactly what she’s saying. A week after the Dead Sea March, Gerard Castles described North Bruny waters as a desert: “What was once rich with marine life is now slimed with algae from [fish farm] pollution, frequently full of jellyfish and little else.”

He said that after years of trying to negotiate with Tassal, the largest of Tasmania’s salmon producers, his Killora community had had enough, and was now seeking to have the leases resumed and the area made into an extension of the Tinderbox Marine Reserve.

Tassal’s defence was a well-used standard: all its operations fully comply with licence conditions and it goes “above and beyond the regulatory guidelines to accommodate our neighbours”.

The industry has no need to worry; the government has its back. Rejecting the idea of a marine reserve, Michael Ferguson, whose ministerial responsibilities include state growth, science and technology, said the community’s “not in my backyard” approach “might see people thrown onto the unemployment scrap heap”.

Primary industries and water minister Guy Barnett said much the same a couple of weeks later, referring to the salmon industry’s many regional jobs and a strong regulatory framework administered by an “independent” Environmental Protection Authority. Tasmania, he said, had “the most environmentally sustainable salmon industry in the world”.

I have read numerous scientific assessments and heard many first-hand accounts from fishers, divers and local residents backing up what the protestors are saying. The only arguments I have heard to the contrary are evidence-free assurances from government or industry that salmon industry jobs are essential to our economy and that all environmental safeguards are being met.

With straight faces and not even a sideways glance, Ferguson and Barnett dismissed out of hand all public alarm about the state of our coastal ecosystems. That alarm was not diminished by EPA advice that the salmon leases are classified as industrial areas with lower environmental standards than surrounding waters.

Ministers and public servants shouldn’t need to be told by Extinction Rebellion, fishers, divers or disgruntled seaside residents, or scientists like Lisa Gershwin, that the state of coastal waters really matters. A moment’s thought about the consequences of losing those waters’ natural resources ought to confirm in their minds that all public concerns should be taken seriously.

Hardened by years of ideological conflict, neither minister thought those angry protests were worth some independent consideration. As the spreading cancer of a degrading environment eats away at our future, all we get from authorities is self-serving industry spin, and I find that very disturbing.

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