Down On The Farms
To what do surfers owe the watery world beyond the impact zones we play in?
To what do large multinationals owe the locals who live on Tasmania's waterways?
Last week, Steve Shearer wrote an article on the ethics of shark control, which in part defended humans using the nearshore zone for food and recreation. Utilising marine environments, was, according to Steve, "a fundamental part of our human story."
Over the last four decades this same argument has been taken to perverse extremes in the waters of Tasmania. What began as a small boutique industry has become something far more complex and insidious. In 1986, shortly after salmon farming began in Tasmania, 55 tonnes of salmon were produced. That annual figure is now 84,000 tonnes and climbing.
Relying on an 'out of sight, out of mind' modus operandi, the three salmon farming companies operating in Tasmania are expanding their reach across Tasmania's waterways. This is not to discount Steve's earlier hypothesis, an anthropologist could draw a long and meandering line between Aboriginal fish traps and industrial fish farms. However, that doesn't make it right, especially not when a lack of industry oversight has seen a staggering imbalance arise with nearshore environments collapsing under the weight of untreated sewage and excess nutrients, among other environmental blights.
And yet still the companies seek to expand their fish pens, first to Macquarie Harbour, where they've driven the Maugean skate to the brink of extinction, then eyeing off the east coast of King Island, and now the coastline of neighbouring Flinders Island. All this set against the backdrop of government indifference but, thankfully, increasing civic scrutiny.
Recently, Swellnet chatted to Mick Lawrence, Tasmania's silver grommet and discoverer of its most famous wave, about the battle brewing in his home state.
Swellnet: How long has the salmon farming industry been in Tasmania?
Mick Lawrence: The first attempt was back in the early days of settlement. In order to appease their acute homesickness, the British surrounded themselves with anything to remind them of what they’d left behind. Things like oak trees, blackbirds, starlings, sheep, cattle, dogs. In 1862, trout and salmon ova were raised to smolt at the purpose built Salmon Ponds, north of New Norfolk. Upon release, the salmon high tailed back to the Old Dart, while the trout headed upstream where they established themselves as the ace predator of our inland lake and river systems.
The latest foray into salmon farming began in the late 1970’s as a boutique industry. Since then it’s morphed into an industrial giant.
Appreciating that the salmon industry is inordinately larger now than it was when it began, was it ever a good idea to farm salmon in Tasmania?
From a commercial perspective it began well. A small boutique industry with no local competition and a niche market. But greed took over and they moved from local deli cabinets to national supermarket aisles. The industry is now locked in, slaves to the growth machine. It’s difficult to see how they could scale back now. I don’t think such a notion would cut it with the dudes at the top.
As to sustainability. That’s a salmon farmer’s version of Warnie’s ’ball of the century‘. It takes around 1.5 kg of protein to grow 1 kg of salmon. Their feed includes krill and wild fish oil. That’s not what I understand sustainable to mean.
Resistance has increased, especially in the last five years. Is this due to a ramping up of scale, thereby affecting more people, or a grassroots campaign finding their voice?
The community voice has certainly got louder of late. I think that’s a combination of massive industry expansion, its environmental consequences and a disconnect between our government and industry on one hand and us, the stakeholders on the other. It’s simply a fundamental difference in values. Exploiters vs Custodians.
Richard Flanagan’s book 'Toxic' captured the public interest to the point where some 70% of Tasmanians now want fish farming out of our waters. And their voice is being channeled through a very active environmental cohort. The tide of public opinion has certainly turned.
If the industry is meeting resistance, why are they expanding so rapidly?
It’s a case of follow the money. The salmon dollar not only speaks loudly, it’s also extremely convincing and aggressive. Unfortunately rather than serve the public interest, our leaders have been seduced by the promise of jobs and growth. The end result is a doubling of production over the next seven years and having fucked up our shallow waterways, their only option is to fuck up the deeper waters of Storm Bay. That’s the recreational playground of urban Hobart - and the natives are pissed off.
These days you spend more time in the hull of a kayak than the deck of a board. Have you kayaked the Huon River, Port Esperance, or Macquarie Harbour waterways? If so, what have you observed?
Yeah. I spent several years exploring those waterways, moving at a pace that allows you to take in the detail - and the detail was disturbing. For anyone who loves this island’s natural heritage the visual impact of once picture perfect rivers and bays being turned into industrial feedlots is devastating.
They’re like cancer cells on the rampage. Below the pens it’s even worse, once vibrant ecosystems replaced by piles of fish shit and slime. The adjoining shorelines strewn with farm debris: bits of nylon rope, lengths of plastic piping, layers of nano plastic. We’re witnessing the creation of a toxic nightmare.
Aside from industrialising quiet waterways and the threat of escaped fish, perhaps the most profound problem is faecal waste. Unlike human waste, or even farm animal waste, the waste from farmed salmon is allowed to wash untreated into Tassie’s waterways. What are the known effects, and can anything be done such as capture or recycling?
Tragically more and more of our magnificent waterways are becoming septic tanks. The current output of crap from fish farms exceeds the island’s human sewerage many times over. That’s environmental vandalism. But it doesn’t have to be. The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has invested billions in coming up with a model on-land farming system for the future. There is no loss in production, it eliminates most environmental issues and converts fish crap into compost. He’s aware we need to produce food and jobs and he’s showing us how to do it.
Whether anyone takes notice remains to be seen.
There are currently three companies farming salmon in Tasmania, none of which are Australian-owned. Does this matter?
It seems more than a coincidence that the industry, which until recent times was controlled by three companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, has now been gobbled up by private overseas interests to whom previous rigid reporting systems don’t apply.
The industry in the northern hemisphere is in a state of transition. Countries bent on best practice are forcing farms out of the water and onto land. They’ve also introduced more stringent environmental protocols, along with an increase in direct taxation. Now, if your focus is the bottom line, why would you want to play on that level playing field. Surely you’d seek a surface more in line with your own goals?
With a compliant government and a toothless police force, our playgrounds must be seen as Salmon Nirvana to the likes of JBS. They're a mob known as the Butchers from Brazil, they are the biggest ‘protein’ producers in the world whose owners have done time for grand scale bribery and corruption and traditionally pay little to the ATO. Hardly the types to have our interests at heart.
Farmed Tasmanian salmon trades heavily on ‘brand Tasmania’, how does that sit with the reality on the ground?
We’ve worked hard to establish our clean/green brand, and it’s an iconic one. It symbolises who we are both as a place and a people. What’s more, it’s helped this island cast aside it’s image as an industrial/social backwater, to one producing sustainable, high quality goods and services.
Our brand is the envy of many - why trash it now?
You don’t have to read far into a news article on the issue, for an industry spokesperson to mention jobs. I know you like your numbers and stats, do you have any on salmon employment?
Jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s a tired mantra with it’s roots stretching back to feudal times. And it’s been the cornerstone of politicians and business spin ever since. Salmon Tasmania claims they provide in excess of 5,000 direct jobs while the Australia Institute sets that number at just 1,500. Put another way, salmon farming is the island’s leading primary producer, yet ranks 40th in terms of employment at .06%.
Between 2013 and 2018, the industry turned over near $4 billion, paid $64 million in tax - effectively a rate of 15% - and received back around $10 million in subsidies. It pays no council rates on its marine leases and less than $1 million for use of our waterways and fresh water. No wonder they’re here, that’s less than 0.1% of what they push through the farm gate.
A short flight with Google Earth shows pens in many of Tassie’s south-east waterways. There’s also been plans for pens off King Island and Flinders Island too. What stage are those plans up to?
After a short moratorium on expansion, the government recently released it’s Salmon plan for the future. A slick brochure full of glossy photos and void of detail. A plan without a plan. But they need space for another 4-500 pens and the southeast, Bass Strait and King and Flinders islands are all displayed on their map as suitable locations. While we thought we’d won the battle over the classic peaks of Martha Lavinia, it appears the war’s not over yet by a long shot.
It’s the stuff of David and Goliath. But we do have a battle plan - collecting an arsenal of sharp rocks while convincing consumers to stop eating Tassie salmon.
Lastly, much is made of salmon’s health benefits - Omega 3 and all that. What are your thoughts?
Yeah. If I was marketing salmon I’d do the same. Creating a positive image is the marketing game and they play it well. A humungous amount of money goes into creating a brand and they’ve tapped into our state brand well. The reality is there are a lot of independent scientists who disagree. Seems farmed salmon may actually be more pink and putrid than clean and green.
The pink flesh of wild salmon is due to astaxanthin - a chemical acquired from eating krill and smaller fish. Without it the flesh would be a bland grey, not exactly enticing to the consumer’s eye. So the farmer’s lace their feed with colour additives selected from a colour swatch, like they have in paint shops. Different farmers select different shades to match their market research into what shade their consumers prefer.
They also nuke the fish with antibiotics to boost their immune system, some of those antibiotics are banned in other parts of the world. As to Omega 3, there’s a lot of independent science indicating salmon contains more harmful fats than a Big Mac Burger. Of course industry argues to the contrary. If I were them, so would I - but I’m not, so I don’t eat the stuff. I’d sooner die of cynicism than carcinogenic poisoning.
Surfers can best get on board by simply not eating Tasmanian farmed salmon and spread the word. Hit the salmon industry where it hurts - in their back pocket. Every lost sale helps.