An industry out of control

It is way past time the Tasmanian salmon industry was fully regulated in accordance with appropriate environmental and health measures.

Aquaculture has rarely been out of the news since Richard Flanagan’s Toxic – a broadside at what he called the “rotting underbelly” of the salmon farming industry – was launched in April.

The book has touched raw nerves on both sides. Those with a gripe against salmon took up with renewed zeal Flanagan’s multi-pronged attack on the billion-dollar industry’s failings, while its defenders took comfort from the author’s reputation as a writer of fiction. 

Amid all this came the launch of a federal government inquiry into Australian aquaculture instigated by the Morrison government’s recently anointed industry development minister, Tasmanian senator Jonathon Duniam, and chaired by Western Australian MP Rick Wilson. Its marching orders are to ascertain how the industry might be expanded.

Whether Tasmanian salmon farming needs expanding is an issue in itself. It would make sense for Wilson’s committee to ignore that sector altogether and focus on the others, which include bluefin tuna, barramundi, prawns and the two oyster industries, eating and pearl culture.

Compared to any other Australian aquaculture sector, Tasmanian salmon farming is massive, more than six times the size of the next biggest. Measured by both weight and economic value, its product adds up to well over half the national aquaculture total. It’s fair to ask, is it too big?

Flanagan’s book has added fuel to smouldering public disquiet about salmon farming’s impact on people and nature – anathema to an industry that relies heavily on retail sales. A couple of its heavyweights – Frances Bender of Huon Aquaculture and recently appointed industry spokesperson Julian Amos – put the defence case in articles in these pages last week.

Those opinion pieces heavily emphasised the industry’s contribution to the Tasmanian economy. Bender puts the number of jobs remunerated by the three companies involved (Tassal, Huon Aquaculture, Petuna) at 2300 and estimates that it indirectly employs over 10,000.

That may be, but the real issue is not whatever money the community may be getting from the industry today, but the long-term price to be paid for that activity. The fact that no-one is currently being asked to pay this price only adds to its importance.

I have never experienced the industry’s noise and light pollution that so blighted Flanagan’s days and nights on North Bruny, and I used to consume as much salmon as the next person. But that changed some years ago when an abalone diver described to me her experience of salmon farms. 

Under the waves, not just beneath pens but for hundreds of metres around, she found scenes of devastation: previously crystal-clear water turned milky, sea bottoms covered in algae, and in once-abundant waters a complete absence of living shellfish, including abalone.

Defaunation (disappearance of animal life) in south-eastern and western coastal waters has bothered independent marine scientists for many years. They have voiced their concerns in multiple forums, including federal and Tasmanian parliamentary hearings. But instead of questions they’ve been met with impassive stares.

Scientists including world jellyfish expert Lisa Gershwin have repeatedly warned state and federal MPs of threats posed by intensive salmon farming in the forms of damage to other marine species resulting from detritus and introduced chemicals and pathogens, and threats to human health from algal blooms and polluted water, both marine and (from land-based operations) drinking water.

So what’s holding back our legislators? Why this reluctance even to dip the toe into these milky waters? Why would they think such matters are unimportant?

As in so many issues around the state of our environment, the answer lies in the money trail. That doesn’t have to involve any sort of direct benefit. Government can be blindsided by high economic returns, but electors too have been known to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour when it delivers relief from food or mortgage stress, no matter how transitory that relief. 

But there are limits. The state has become the industry’s willing agent, to the point of sidelining planning and environmental laws and allowing it to self-regulate, a practice honoured by the title “adaptive management” but better named trial and error.

For millennia our coastal waters have been a primary source of spiritual and actual nourishment for people living around our island’s shores. Now their future is threatened by an industry which, having been given the run of the public estate, is now literally out of control. 

Flanagan’s book is a timely wakeup call. Far from the expansion envisaged by the Duniam-Wilson inquiry and the state government, we must instead limit its size and operations to what an unspoiled environment can sustain, and curtail its excesses through independent public regulation.

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