Salmon report highlights environmental negligence

Fish are great political metaphors, and Christopher Downes nailed a number of them last week in his cartoon of a female MP and an Atlantic salmon sharing grievances about toxic environments (Mercury, August 31).

Premier Jeremy Rockliff wants to stamp out bad behaviour in the parliament, but poor aquaculture practices are another matter. His government describes the industry’s exponential growth as “one of the state’s success stories”.

True if money is the only measure, but not if you want healthy waterways. The vast majority of recent public submissions have attested to the industry’s negative effects on natural ecosystems in both coastal waters and rivers. 

Parallel conversations extending over years – public concern in one stream, government and industry promotion in the other – have bedevilled this chronic controversy. That was starkly evident in the Legislative Council a fortnight ago when it debated the findings of a forensic 2½-year inquiry into finfish farming. 

During its existence, the committee saw the three major industry players, all Tasmanian-owned, sold to much larger foreign companies: Petuna Aquaculture to Sealord Group (NZ), Huon Aquaculture to JBS (Brazil), and this year, Tassal to Cooke Inc (Canada).

Yet in the face of members dropping off and a parliament disrupted by two changes of premier and an early election, this long-overdue study of Tasmanian salmon farming – the first formal one by a parliamentary committee – stuck to its guns and finished its task. The committee can take a bow. 

Committee chair Meg Webb said that in its detailed findings and 68 recommendations, the inquiry sought a “healing and restorative” administrative process “to ensure that we do not see the perpetuation of the same issues that are plaguing us now”.

But as independent Ruth Forrest reminded the chamber, the government still has a distance to go to recover public confidence lost in the “absolute disaster” six years ago when large parts of Macquarie Harbour were devastated by waste from overstocked, overcrowded pens.

Webb, Forrest and two other committee members, Rob Valentine and Mike Gaffney (all are indpendent MLCs) brought to the debate their accumulated knowledge from those years of study, including 225 public submissions, six sessions of public hearings and extensive travel to inspect fish farms and meet community groups.

The committee looked at the inner working of the Marine Farming Planning Review panel, including the 2019 resignations of two scientific experts who felt their concerns about the industry’s expansion in Storm Bay were not being heard. Those experts favoured the precautionary principle (if in doubt, don’t do it) over the industry’s “adaptive management” principle, which one of the experts described as “let’s throw cages in and see how it goes”.

It looked at what the industry paid for using public waters (described by Gaffney as “a pittance”), and a government presenting as “enthusiastic supporters, maybe even cheerleaders, for the success of this industry” (as Webb put it), at the expense of good planning and regulation.

A principal driver of the inquiry was the Hodgman government’s 2017 “sustainable growth” plan for the industry. That sparked a public controversy which has plagued the planning process ever since. 

This year the government tried again with a discussion paper on “aquaculture aspirations for 2033” aimed at “enabling a vibrant salmon industry”. It says it will not increase leased farming areas until the plan is completed, while focusing on land and offshore farming and applying “world best practice”, and “strict, independent regulation”. Public submissions closed last week.

The government said it would not support two of the committee’s 68 recommendations, but fully or partially supports 23. The remaining 43 it supports “in principle”, formal parlance for “we’ll see”.

In her response to the committee’s report, fisheries minister Jo Palmer spruiked the industry as a Tasmanian “success story… that we can all be proud of” and declared a future vision of “a modern aquaculture industry … world-leading and sustainable … underpinned by robust, independent environmental regulation … with appropriate safeguards”.

Palmer said that a salmon farming operation should be judged against conditions applying when it was approved, not on the basis of subsequent knowledge: “It is not realistic to think that any government would extinguish existing rights.”

But if the industry can act with impunity until its lease runs out, we can expect to see more Macquarie Harbour debacles. A government that did not control the locally-owned industry would be even less likely to control foreign multinationals.

In the absence of government will to set and enforce strict environmental limits, salmon farming will continue to be boom-and-bust, leaving behind a devastated inshore marine environment. I hope I’m wrong.

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