Australian seabirds killed by fish farms with Government approval


36 great cormorants died after becoming entangled in bird netting, and 53 were legally shot by Tassal staff, who had been granted permits by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. The Tasmanian government approved the shooting after substandard netting allowed hundreds of the birds to enter fish cages at a salmon farm near Hobart.

Right to Information documents released to The Tasmanian Inquirer revealed that an estimated 641 cormorants entered fish cages at the Sheppards salmon lease near Coningham in November and December 2023.

Dr Eric Woehler, an independent Tasmanian ecologist who was awarded an Order of Australia medal for 40 years of research on seabirds, said being entangled in netting prevented a cormorant from feeding or drinking and could cause "pain and suffering". Woehler said great cormorants could live for about 20 years and generally mated for life. "From a social licence point of view, it is not a good look to be shooting birds," he said.

The first the department knew of the issue was on 6 December, when Tassal submitted a monthly wildlife interactions report. The company's report said that there had "been no changes in the exclusion infrastructure that could have led to this increased interaction", but an attached spreadsheet noted that 20 cormorants had entered one cage through a hole in the netting.

Two days later, Tassal applied for a permit to shoot up to 50 cormorants as large numbers of the birds were squeezing through the 100-millimetre bird netting or weighing down the nets to gain access to the salmon. Tassal estimated that it was losing between $10,000 and $20,000 of salmon per day.

The department granted the permit but stressed to a Tassal executive that "lethal control of these birds is a last resort".

In its application for a second permit, a Tassal executive said the company was "installing the correct upgraded exclusion infrastructure". But they noted that some nets were second-hand, and the company was continuing the "tensioning and repair process". The records say Tassal replaced the original 100 mm mesh netting with 70 mm mesh nets.

Tasmanian Inquirer sought copies of department records indicating assessments of risks to birds at other fish farms after the deaths at Sheppards lease. The department said it found no documents.