Salmon farming in Tasmania – the hot topic on ABC’s Four Corners (4C) – are viewers being grossly misled?

Recently, the ABC aired a documentary on Four Corners (4C) about the salmon farming industry in Tasmania. It started off sounding like it was going to be about how salmon are farmed, what they are fed, and the environmental impact. Sounds like for excellent viewing?

But I was sorely disappointed when the story unravelled. Is it infotainment that’s masquerading as a legitimate documentary?

Take a look at –

My impression is that it was primarily a Tassal-bashing program. The program used standard global salmon farming practices as evidence to suggest Tassal are poor operators.

The report leads in with a comment from an anti-fish farming lobbyist, “Now smell? Anybody worried about smell?” followed by a giggle. I’ve visited many fish farms before and the smell is nowhere near as strong as terrestrial farmed animals (chicken farm link report).

And why would the host suggest that consumers think of wild salmon leaping from a pristine river, when eating Australian farmed salmon? Australian consumers would not have access to “wild” salmon because these fish are not native to Australia. Like cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and many other farmed species, salmon (and trout) have been introduced to Australia for the purpose of food.

The reporter talks about salmon being “highly engineered”. In fact, selective breeding in salmon is what has made them so good for farming. It is part of the domestication process used in cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. In fact, these terrestrial counterparts resemble little to their wild ancestors. I would beg to differ that salmon are any more altered from their wild ancestors when compared to terrestrial domesticated animals.

Then onto the topic of Tassal’s expansion of their Macquarie Harbour operations. It was mentioned that 20 tonnes of feed are fed to their fish, and so Macquarie Harbour is full of faeces. The comments don’t take into consideration that 20 tonnes of feed does not equal 20 tonnes of faeces. The food fed to the fish are highly digestible, and so a lot of it will be integrated into the farmed salmon. So, NO, Macquarie Harbour will not be full of faeces.

There was discussion around poor flushing due to the narrowness of the main channel. In fact, the narrowness of the channel is unnatural. The main channel has a man-made wall that prevents erosion and keeps the channel deep and narrow, rather than allowing the channel to become wide and shallow (source link).

Additionally, flushing may not actually be a problem. The King River and Gordon River empty into Macquarie Harbour. The sheer volume of fresh water that pours into the Harbour through the rivers, combined with the narrow exit actually results in barometric tides and such hazardous tidal currents that it has come to be called Hell’s Gates (source link).

There was mention of the tragic loss of fish due to storms in Macquarie Harbour in May 2015. It was an unplanned natural disaster that caused low dissolved oxygen. This naturally happens in bays, and is responsible for wild-fish kills from time to time. The low dissolved oxygen is not due to the presence of farmed fish. Moreover their (ABC’s) environment expert said that this incident was unprecedented. It just doesn’t make sense to me why a company is willing to invest so much in an area that’s not conducive to farming. Tassal says they have conducted scientific studies, and are following the government imposed cap on salmon population, and Huon are moving out of the harbour. My thinking is that as long as the area is large enough with adequate flow, then it would be suitable for sea-cage farming and that it would have little environmental impact.

The report on the closure of Dover Bay Mussels in 2015 due to fouling of their stock due to Tassal’s net-cleaning operations may be feasible. This situation would be more than unfortunate. I’d have hoped that industry and government funds could have helped the mussel farmer’s business recover. Though, thinking about the timeline of events, it doesn’t quite add up. The mussel farm was boasting the fastest growing mussels from the year 2009. Then their mussels failed to grow in 2014. Then their mussels became fouled in 2015. Mussels grow best in nutrient-rich waters, and the amount of fouling on their shells is primarily related to their growth rate and husbandry. Was it something that Tassal did differently from 2014, to cause the reduced growth rate of the mussels, and the eventual fouling of mussels in 2015? This would need further investigation to know for sure, what actually happened.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) has awarded six Tassal operations and two Petuna operations with this gold standard for fish farming (see link). This is something to be celebrated. Why paint a negative picture ABC?

Then onto the Tassal and WWF partnership. The reporter was voicing a different opinion from the articles that were only so quickly flashed in the background. If you click “pause”, you can see the Tassal and WWF partnership payments was funding to pay for deliverables, covering wages for technicians, communications and administrators. ABC did not detail what the deliverables were, but it doesn’t seem all that sinister to me. Moreover, the reporter then put another spin, saying the “WWF charges Tassal.”

ABC was also trying to discredit WWF for refusing Huon the use their logo. This is a strong allegation, but why haven’t the ABC provided documents as evidence? They have been very good at sourcing leaked documentation for all the other subjects, but where is the documentation for Huon’s discussion with WWF about using the logo?

They also talked about what food Tassal are feeding their salmon. There is protein-substitution from fishmeal, to things such as ruminant-meal, poultry-meal, blood-meal and the sort. Should we view this as a more sustainable way of producing food for farmed fish? We should be salvaging such by-products, and not let it go to waste. Morever, the reporter failed to advise viewers that the same feed manufacturer’s customers also include Petuna and Huon. Again, Tassal has been made the target.

It is true that astaxanthin gives salmon flesh the orange colour, but there was no mention that it has identical biological activity as the natural astaxanthin – has antioxidant qualities and acts as a sunscreen for salmon eggs. Did you know that salmon is not the only thing you eat that contains synthetic astaxanthin? It is also used as an additive to impart colouration to your chicken egg yolks that you buy by the dozen from your local supermarkets. Yes, without food colourants, egg yolks would be a dull yellow and flamingoes would be a dirty white. And do we even want to mention how much food colouring we’re eating in our desserts, confectionery, junk food… without even giving it a second-thought?

Tassal is expanding into Okehampton Bay, working in partnership with Springbay Seafoods, helping them with a bad turn of events following toxic algal blooms. Looks like a win-win situation, but ABC harped on for a long time on a rumour. It was about the “rumoured expansion into the Mercury Passage.”

Salmon farming IS the largest agribusiness in the state. Tasmanians (and the greater Australian population) depend on their success. Bear in mind that we no longer harvest wild seeds and fruits, and nor do we hunt wild terrestrial animals for meat. These are all domesticated and farmed. For us to continue to eat fish in any appreciable quantities, selective breeding for the purpose of domesticating and farming is what is needed in fish too. For a sustainable future, farming on land and farming in the waters are complementary activities, that will help feed the world.

Is this really a David and Goliath battle, or does the ABC suffer from Tall Poppy syndrome?

Feel free to share your thoughts.

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Yours sincerely,

Dr Richmond Loh
DipProjMgt, BSc, BVMS, MPhil (Pathology), MANZCVS (Aquatics & Pathobiology), CertAqV, CMAVA, NATA Signatory.
Aquatic Veterinarian & Veterinary Pathologist

Mobile Aquatic Veterinary Medical & Diagnostic Services.


Ph: +61 (0)421 822 383

Skype: thefishvet
President WAVMA 2014
Adjunct Lecturer Murdoch University

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