Salmon industry claims in secret report “unverifiable puffery” says Richard Flanagan


The Mercury, 10 October 2023

Two years ago the salmon industry claimed in full page advertisements that 12,000 Tasmanians worked "either directly or indirectly in the salmon industry, making this one of Tasmania's biggest employers".

You can still find this untruth on the website of lobby group Salmon Tasmania as it puffs out nonsense for its overseas funders, the foreign owners of the Tasmanian salmon industry.

Bizarrely, the same website also boasts the industry today supports 5103 full-time jobs. What happened to the other 7000 jobs is anyone's guess.

The latest claim of 5103 jobs derives from a confidential report commissioned by Salmon Tasmania from Deloitte, one of the now increasingly embattled Big Four accountancy firms.

The report remains secret but Salmon Tasmania has circulated a version of the report which purports to draw its facts from the Deloitte document. Salmon Tasmania's hybrid is unverifiable puffery dressed up with glossy photos and what is described as Deloitte analysis.

Having now obtained a back door copy of the original report, I can well understand Deloitte would be embarrassed by the version published by Salmon Tasmania.

Not only is the Deloitte's 5103 Tasmanian jobs claim difficult to square with Deloitte's own 2023 report to the Australian Institute of Marine Science that found (p42) only 8239 direct and indirect jobs across all Australia in marine aquaculture, but a fact check of the Deloitte report by eminent economist, Dr Graeme Wells, for the Tasmanian Independent Science Council, found Deloitte's "claim that the salmon industry represents one-fifth of the state's entire agriculture, forestry and fishing industry is grossly exaggerated. When measured on a like-for-like basis, the figure is likely to be about 6-7 per cent."

Dr Wells described Deloitte's employment and labour productivity data as "puzzling" – perhaps because there is no actual evidence or proof in the Deloitte report supporting its claim of 5130 jobs.

I began my writing life as an historian. I learnt early that bad historians, when wanting to forge an untruth, add a footnote citing unrelated sources confident no one will check the fine print.

Both Deloitte's original report and the Salmon Tasmania hybrid report cite the same two sources in their identical footnote (footnote 22 in the Deloitte and footnote 8 in the Salmon Tasmania report) for the 5103 jobs claim.

The first source given is the ABS labour force figures for December 2022. But nowhere in these figures does the ABS record aquaculture as a separate category of employment. Nowhere in the ABS statistics there – or anywhere else – are the facts to support the contention that there are 5130 jobs in the Tasmanian salmon industry.

The second source cited in footnotes 22 and 8 is "Department of Premier and Cabinet (Tas.)"

This is curious. Naming a government department is not a factual source. Unless Deloitte can produce detailed documentation provided by the department it implies someone in the department told someone at Deloitte they thought 5103 jobs might be a good guess.

What is even stranger is that there were Tasmanian government figures for employment in the salmon industry that Deloitte chose not to cite.

In 2021 the pro-salmon Tasmanian government found the industry employed 1734 people full time and 199 casuals (page 12 of the DPIPWE's "Second Progress Report. Sustainable Industry Growth Plan for the Salmon Industry. September 2021"[ii]).

That's it. 1734 full-time jobs. Not 12,000 nor 5130. Just 1734 jobs – or over 1200 jobs less than the Royal Hobart Hospital.

That report conveniently vanished from the government website in June, just before the Deloitte report appeared.

Luckily, the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry seems not to yet suffer strangely vanishing public documents. Using census and ATO data it estimated that in 2020-21 there were 1310 people employed in all Tasmanian offshore caged aquaculture. A further 457 people are employed in fish processing and wholesaling.[iii] Many of these 457 would be working for the salmon industry – but not all. Even if we add that entire 457 to 1301 we still only get to 1767 jobs. Look it up yourself.

Wisely, neither the DPIPWE nor federal reports sought to estimate how many jobs are "supported" by the salmon industry, yet both Deloitte and Salmon Tasmania do, making such claims – without evidence – as "In the Huon Valley, over one in four jobs are supported by the Salmon Industry."

As Dr Wells has highlighted, 'multiplier effects' are unreliable and misleading. It's possible to say in selling, lending and teaching my books in Tasmania, some dozens of jobs are "supported" by my writing. Possible – but fanciful nonsense.

Still, it was on just such nonsense that the Legislative Council recently so shamefully voted to support the salmon industry – drawing its arguments entirely from the flawed Deloitte report's fake findings.

To her great credit, MLC Ruth Forrest spoke of her difficulty checking sources, discovering dead links and warned against taking glossy brochures at face value with 'more pictures than detail', while MLC Mike Gaffney described it, correctly, as "an advertorial paid for by foreign-owned entities".

Now Deloitte's questionable jobs figures underpin the demands of Salmon Tasmania's Luke Martin to keep salmon farms in Macquarie Harbour despite driving the Maugean skate to the edge of extinction. In his words, it is about getting "the balance right" and protecting the "17 per cent of all employment on the West Coast" for which "salmon aquaculture is responsible". [iv]

The figure of 17 per cent is an impressive number. Except there's no factual evidence to support it.

Here's what we do know.

In 2021, according to the fiercely pro-salmon Tasmanian Department of State Growth the total number of jobs in 'Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing' on the West Coast was – and sit down for this – 81 people. In all three sectors.[v]

That's it. Not thousands, not hundreds. Something less than 81 people.

Will that report be altered or disappear next?

All jobs matter, of course. But so, too, does the truth.

The truth is that a 100 per cent foreign-owned salmon industry cares little for Tasmanian jobs or Tasmanian communities or Tasmanian species or Tasmanian waterways or Tasmanian values.

The truth is that Salmon Tasmania's spin is only about protecting the foreign companies that finance it while the public is becoming increasingly concerned about the potential risk of salmon hatchery effluent on Hobart's drinking water catchment, the Maugean skate is driven to extinction and Tasmanians watch their birthright, their beaches and waterways and rivers, slowly being destroyed.

Why does the truth matter? Because it's our Tasmania, not theirs.

Richard Flanagan is a Tasmanian writer. His book Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, was short-listed for the 2021 Walkley Book Award.

The Mercury, 10 October 2023