Something fishy about Tasmania's salmon farming

April 14, 2016
A worker sprays feed into a salmon farming pen.

At the edge of the south east, the Arctic is nebulous, but its ice shards are felt on the hands, and you can feel tingles of dim isolation in the wildness of Tasmania's oceans.

Sequences and currents from Tasmania's Huon Valley rivers and Cygnet Bay dip to the deep-sea behind the pristine Bruny Island. The bio-network of inlets, bays and streams move lightly and serenely downwards with the humid vapour of the mountains. Sheltered water habitats protect rare crays, platypus, seals and southern right whales.

The neo-gothic Tasmania is both beauty and beast on display — a bare and harsh paradise camouflaging ugly industrial histories reaching back to penal times with bloody whaling and sealing in the eastern sea and the damming, mining and wood chipping. Now the eerie, modern beast of industrial aquaculture looms large, as webbing from cages oscillates trapped salmon in human-created fish bowls. Dead zones of oxygen and high nitrogen exist below. In the east and west, the salmon are dying off in the top layers of warm water.

Observing reality out on the water in the east coast you can see why: the stark sight of the aquaculture boom, roping off the water for kilometres, creates an odious plume of salmon oil, faeces and antibiotics. The dark water slimes around on previously unspoiled blue ocean, spraying the cliff face of Bruny Island — a premier oyster and whisky tourist attraction. Seals poke their heads up and shake through the water's fatty layer with intent, artfully avoiding the webbed infrastructure, opting to break into the caged salmon from various angles. History echoes and ripples in a chill on the water. Hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, the seals once again suffer with 144 government sanctioned kills confirmed.

The locals call it as they see it: “seal culling”, “industrial pollution” and “battery salmon farming”. They reckon, in hushed tones, as if not to be overheard and sued, Tassal and Huon Aquaculture are the “new Gunns” corporations.

Seeking limits on salmon farming are an increasingly vocal and exotic mix of organic and traditional farmers, oyster and muscle divers, whisky producers, hippies, eco-tour operators, church lefties and solar tech-heads.

Environment Tasmania's Rebecca Hubbard, explains the current mood: “Community concerns are stifled; people are scared to say anything. Locals are very concerned about the industry riding off the back of the clean and green image — undermining the brand.”

Joh Bryan, of the Tasmania Conservation Trust said: “The Tasmanian government is giving usage rights to private businesses, which are operating an industrial farming activity. This will continue to stimulate a lot of opposition. Too many goldfish in a plastic bag obviously causes problems.”

Industrialised salmon farming is a modern-day industry in Tasmania. Starting quietly in the late '90s and growing by 180% in the 2000s, now, according to Hugh Kirkman in a report for Environment Tasmania, “thousands of hectares of farms host up to 50,000 salmon per cage”.

The salmon production cycle is as follows: hatch salmon eggs in freshwater tanks; add salmon to pens; feed fishmeal (chicken beaks); shake in antibiotics and hormones; colour bright-red with beta-carotene oil; smoke a 5kg salmon at a factory.

With more than 43,000 tons of salmon exported every year, up from a mere 2000 in the '90s, peak salmon has yet to occur. Salmon farming is expected to double in production by 2030.

As the salmon farming increases, so too do the inferences of nepotism, conflict of interest and corruption; known all too well to activists in Tasmania. Conservation groups waited for an expose and late last year they had it.

Odious company emails showed that nitrogen levels and disease levels were contrary to corporate self-reporting. Secret Tassal emails discussed a disease outbreak in the west which provided a “clear warning sign that the environment we are growing fish in is becoming compromised”.

A world away in Canberra, the three-week 2015 Senate inquiry produced a 130-page report that “brushed aside concerns,” said Hubbard. As locals had referred the matter to the federal government, characteristically the backlash from the government and big business was relentless and eerie.

“Greens witch-hunt”, hissed Jackie Lambie. “Un-Tasmanian” heckles came from CEOs. Threatened were $626 million in exports and 5000 jobs, said business. The Tasmanian Liberal government denied the issue, blaming “Greenies” for wrecking jobs and, under new anti-protestor laws, instigated a new round of environmental deregulation.

But by early this year, the beast had begun to consume itself; the expansion seemingly hindered by Tasmania's unforgivable landscape. An unstoppable feedback loop was occurring. The water warmed, the nutrient pollution shifted, the oxygen levels dipped and salmon died off. Nitrogen levels rose above the regulated amount, and the Tasmanian government ordered another corporate study — to the tune of $250,000 — as the penalty.

Another feedback loop emerged. In March the share market shredded millions off the share price of salmon companies Tassal and Huon — down by 17.9 and 4.2%. More loops appeared — half-yearly profit reports stumbled; corporations had to report fish losses to the stock exchange; job losses were on the cards.

Neoliberals do very little to watch actual ripple effects but are fond of the phrase economic upstream and downstream effects — which is almost literal on Tasmanian east coast water.

Still, even with the slime, pollution and sealing issues, corporations and the state maintain the real issue remains job creation.

As one eco-tour operator said: “We hate it [salmon farming] but we are told it brings in jobs. The water stinks and we don't eat the salmon. It's going to wreck our coastline and tourism.”

Downstream pollutants from the salmon evidently hit upstream — ramming straight into tours from Hobart to the east coast, Tasmania's $2 billion tourist dollar and an environmentally sensitive share market.

Perhaps now in the modern era, it's finally time for Tasmania to focus truly on the beauty rather than the industrial beast.

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