We cannot simply swallow salmon industry’s spin – there is a better way says former EPA board member Louise Cherrie


We cannot simply just swallow the salmon industry's spin – there is a better way. Being the best of the worst is nothing to crow about when it comes of fish farming, argues former EPA board member Louise Cherrie, writing in The Mercury, 21 February 2024 (paywalled):

In 2018 I was a member of the Marine Farming Review Panel advising the minister on salmon farming. During consideration of massive expansion proposed for Storm Bay I did my own due diligence. I looked for proof of readiness to prevent or respond to plausible scenarios like fish mass mortality and benthic dead zones. I wanted to see monitoring for early warning and operational plans for quick response. Fellow member and renowned fish health scientist Professor Barbara Nowak sought proof of adequate biosecurity management to prevent disease outbreak. Plans either didn't exist, were inadequate, or were simply not provided by industry. 

I was told by senior salmon industry staff, and I quote: "You just need to trust us". Glaring omissions and facts were brushed aside. I verified large scale degradation in other areas and found the science to be incomplete. Underway yes, but incomplete, and therefore no foundation for massive expansion. I saw the disgraceful state of Macquarie Harbour in video footage that would shock any decent person. 

However, I am a pragmatist and an "industry type", so I turned my attention to adaptive management as a suitable backup to incomplete science. But it wasn't and it isn't. Adaptive management failed dismally in Macquarie Harbour, resulting in deoxygenation of water progressively since the 2014 major expansion, causing fish kills, and pushing the Maugean skate to the brink of extinction. These impacts were highly foreseeable and wholly preventable. 

It would be foolish not to learn from that and do better. However, the salmon industry had no need to learn anything because their growth has been protected by ill-informed and shortsighted politicians. Professor Nowak and I resigned together in total frustration. 

So, what's changed in the 5 years since we resigned? Nothing good I'm afraid. Open pen farming remains the only industry in Tasmania allowed under permit to discharge untreated waste into the marine environment. Front page news for any other sector, business as usual for salmon. Unfortunately, the propensity for industry and government to support only that advice which is convenient to expansion will be to the detriment of the environment, workers, and other industries. The predicable playbook of spin by the industry is a mere distraction. 

If as much effort was put into developing business cases to move onshore as it is to targeting detractors and keeping government captive, we'd be a lot closer to a sustainable industry. All we currently have is an inadequate Salmon Standard, continued industrial scale farming in areas that are choking, and farming trial in Bass Strait Commonwealth waters where hydrodynamics will likely result in impacts to fisheries and coastal areas. Is that good enough? 

Of course, the reasonable question is: "Can we actually do better and still have a strong economy?" Absolutely! In 2022, I audited Australia's largest single species fin fish farm. I found land-based production ponds coupled with wetlands for passive treatment of recirculating water, well managed discharge points, and a leadership team who were transparent and driven. 

They make good profits and, as conveyed to me in a series of feedback sessions I ran, genuinely valued by the local community and stakeholders. Even the local environmental activist group were supportive. It is best practice, and the same principles can be applied in Tasmania without loss of jobs. Widespread degradation of public waterways, driving endangered species to the brink of extinction, and bombing protected seals is not best practice – it's shameful and a stain on our beautiful island's good global name. 

Claims of world's best practices by Tasmanian salmon are misleading, contested, and certainly not in the areas of biosecurity and ecosystem protection. Given the global turn away from open pen grow out (for good reason), being the best of the worst is nothing to crow about. So why do they do it when it's so damaging and being phased out in many countries? Because it's the cheapest production model and because the Tasmanian government let them. 

Regional jobs have been weaponised but they are not an excuse to pollute. Sustainable long-term jobs can be had onshore. Besides, with fish being fed from control rooms in Hobart and the drive-in drive-out workforce, the scaremongering is out of step with real regional contribution. 

The targeting of those who speak out as "environmental activists" perplexes me. It's simply everyday Tasmanians asking reasonable questions and becoming increasingly frustrated at the responses, or lack thereof. I share that frustration. 

I happily stand with the community and independent scientists to push for better. There can be no challenge to the heavily referenced and verified facts presented and our lived history of harm. Accepting the inconvenient truth is the first step to transformation.

Tasmania's future is not in industrial scale marine feedlots. A strong economy and good environmental outcomes are compatible, but it takes leadership to transform. 

Show care for workers by protecting their jobs for the long-term. Build something we can be proud of. Develop the business plans to move onshore before the industry and ecosystem crashes from highly foreseeable conditions. We have the means, innovation, and regulatory framework. All we need is the will. I, along with a host of independent scientists, stand ready and willing to advise. I encourage industry to embrace the truth and seek professional help.

  • Louise Cherrie is an independent environmental consultant and former member of the EPA Board and Marine Farming Review Panel.