Anywhere other than Tasmania, an environmental disaster on the scale of Macquarie Harbour would have seen a major public investigation or report, top bureaucrats losing their jobs, companies substantially fined and punished, new regimes introduced, new, far more rigorous regulatory codes implemented, CEOs pressured by their boards and politicians in the firing line…But this was Tasmania, and in Tasmania it was all swept under the carpet so that, amazingly, the industry emerged not only unscathed and unpunished, but resolved on another massive public water grab.
The rotting underbelly of the salmon industry. Essay by Richard Flanagan. Documentary by Justin Kurzel and Conor Castles-Lynch.
By Richard Flanagan, Justin Kurzel and Conor Castles-Lynch
Published on The Monthly, April 22, 2021
Most recent news on Macquarie Harbour (ABC News, May 29, 2021): Macquarie Harbour salmon: 1.35 million fish deaths prompt call to ’empty’ waterway of farms
Christine Coughanowr is a gently spoken woman of large achievement. An estuarine scientist, she started and led for twenty years a remarkable program to clean up pollution and restore marine life in Hobart’s magnificent Derwent Estuary. Known as the Derwent Estuary Program (DEP), it secured support from all levels of government and private industry to measure and improve the health of the Derwent’s lower reaches. Over two decades, industry and councils, along with the state and federal governments, significantly reduced the pollution emptying into the Derwent. It was a successful and popular program that continues to enjoy considerable community support. But now Coughanowr fears that much that was achieved over the last two decades could be lost to the salmon corporations’ greed.
Coughanowr is worried. She talks of Hobart’s drinking water also now being at risk from the pollution from salmon hatcheries, where the salmon are bred and raised to smolt (juvenile) stage. The older hatcheries – which is most of them – disperse their nutrient-rich effluent straight back into the river from which they draw their freshwater. Many of these hatcheries are situated on the upper reaches of the Derwent and Huon river systems, both sources of drinking water, the Derwent providing the majority of Hobart’s drinking water. Also present may be antibiotics and chemicals such as formaldehyde.
Another scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, laments to me how rather than managing Hobart’s drinking water for public risk, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) – Tasmania’s environmental regulator – gives the appearance of existing only to enable the expansion of the salmon industry. Rather than improving hatchery standards to an acceptable level, it sanctions more and larger hatcheries on Hobart’s water catchment. Basic measures such as drum filters do not address the vast amount of dissolved nutrients – ammonia, nitrate, phosphorus – which hatchery fish release through their gills, along with decayed faeces and food, into the source of drinking water for half Tasmania’s population.
Ammonia and nitrite are directly toxic to fish and invertebrate life in rivers and lakes. But that is not all, nor is it the greatest risk to the downstream environment.
Tasmanian rivers and lakes are nitrogen and phosphorus limited. Once these elements are introduced in quantity, algal growth can rapidly reach bloom proportions. If the nutrient load is high, pristine lakes and rivers can be quickly transformed from glorious clear waterways into turbid green algal-dominated environments.
Coughanowr explains that in 2015, following the opening by Huon Aquaculture of a large smolt hatchery below Meadowbank dam on the Derwent River, green algal blooms began appearing in the river. So extreme were these blooms that they threatened internationally significant seagrass beds and wetlands around Granton, an area sometimes described as the kidneys of the Derwent. At the same time, there was a public outcry about the bad taste and bad smell of Hobart’s drinking water – water locals normally hail as the best-tasting in Australia. But now the water often stank and tasted awful. The bad taste and odour came from the blue-green algal blooms, which have occurred most summers since.
There is a strong likelihood that the algal blooms were caused by excess nitrogen flowing into Hobart’s water catchment. Coughanowr says that TasWater’s own research came to the same conclusion. The question, she says, is where does the nitrogen come from? There could be several sources, principally either agriculture or the cumulative effect of other sources. But the main agricultural sources lie on the Derwent above the Huon hatchery, where there have never been any significant algal blooms. All the algal blooms occur below Huon Aquaculture’s new hatchery which has, according to Coughanowr, a nutrient discharge similar in size to a sewage plant of a town of 5–10,000 people.
To Coughanowr’s astonishment there was no environmental impact statement for the hatchery, or if there was, she never saw it, as she would have expected to as director of the DEP. The EPA has never investigated whether the taste and odour compounds are produced or stimulated by the nutrients from the Meadowbank hatchery.
Coughanowr is frustrated at the lack of honest dialogue about the many issues associated with Big Salmon, and the ensuing loss of trust within the community. She talks of the good people she knows working within state bodies, salmon companies and research bodies as scientists, regulators and managers, who, she says, are hampered by commercial-in-confidence gags and by genuine risks to their long-term job prospects should they speak too directly.
TasWater, charged with managing Tasmania’s drinking water and formed out of regional authorities in 2013, inherited an ill-considered agreement made in 2000 to supply farmers in the dry south-east of Tasmania with Hobart’s treated drinking water for them to use for irrigation. Improbable as this sounds, TasWater enlarged the commitment in 2014.
As an interim measure to deal with the taste and odour problems that began in 2015, TasWater installed an extra carbon filtration system at Bryn Estyn, its water treatment plant on the Derwent River. Costing $2.3 million since inception, the problem with the new filtration system has been that it takes longer to produce potable water. At the height of the summer of 2019–20, when farmers needed to use Hobart’s drinking water for irrigation, the system couldn’t produce it quickly enough. This, combined with below average rainfall, saw all Hobart put on to water restrictions and farmers similarly offered a reduced supply.
And so after deciding to spend millions of water users’ money to address a problem that would appear to have been in no small part created by the salmon industry, Tasmanians had to endure a summer of water restrictions which had little to do with water supply and everything to do with water pollution. What begins with a refusal to confront the all-powerful salmon industry ends up a series of cascading crises that affect – and cost – Tasmanians.
The scandal of Hobart’s water doesn’t end there, though. In 2020 the EPA approved construction of Tassal’s – and Australia’s – largest hatchery yet, a few kilometres upstream of the Huon Aquaculture hatchery, compounding a crisis that in Tasmania cannot be named nor addressed and in the ensuing silence only worsens.
Bodies like TasWater, instead of choosing to manage its water catchments by asking hard questions of the salmon companies – as might be expected when dealing with the purity of the drinking water of its citizens and their very health – choose not to address the issues of water pollution that the algal blooms so clearly signalled. In reply to questions put to it in March 2021 about its management of nutrient pollution in Hobart’s drinking water catchment, TasWater pleaded its “limited ability … to implement catchment management activities in the Derwent catchment due to its size and scale”.
In what could be viewed as a political decision to avoid a fight with the all-powerful salmon industry, TasWater has now embarked on the largest water infrastructure project in its history, a $240 million upgrade of Bryn Estyn, fitting it with an advanced filtration system that will remove the bad taste and odours from the water. Tasmania’s water users will have to pay off a $240 million bill in part to deal with the consequences of Big Salmon’s growing contamination of Tasmania’s principal drinking water catchment, effectively subsidising the salmon corporations’ profits and sanctioning their pollution.
The Tasmanian government and the salmon industry love to talk of the benefits salmon farming brings. But they don’t talk about the many costs. When the contamination of Hobart’s drinking water, water restrictions and hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money being spent as a corrective are added up, Tasmanians might reasonably ask why they are paying hidden subsidies and what do they get out of the salmon industry in direct return.
The short answer is almost nothing.
If we look at what the Tasmanian government earns in lease and licence fees in exchange for the exploitation of and environmental damage to its iconic public waters from this billion-dollar industry, the amount is laughable. According to an Australia Institute analysis, the estimated total lease and licence fees of $923,008 represent about 0.1 per cent (one-thousandth) of the total farmgate production of the salmon industry in Tasmania, and 0.02 per cent of total state revenue.
Coughanowr is now even more worried by the huge expansion of the salmon industry into Storm Bay on the east of Bruny Island at three massive lease sites. She hands me a graph in which the column showing the planned nutrient discharges – with 70 per cent of the nitrogen in fish feed excreted by salmon in the form of faeces and ammonia – from the Storm Bay floating feedlots dwarfs the column showing all sewage from Tasmania.
If the industry’s plan of 80,000 tonnes of annual production is realised, it will be the equivalent of building a city of three million people (Brisbane, plus another 600,000) on North Bruny Island – and pouring all their sewage into Storm Bay.
This raises an even grimmer possibility than the contamination of Hobart’s drinking water by the salmon industry.
In the 1970s, Hobart’s Derwent Estuary was famously compared to Japan’s globally notorious Minamata Bay. There, a factory poisoned the bay with mercury, which then poisoned and killed the local fish-eating people. Minamata became a byword for industrial pollution and its murderous consequences. Because of unregulated pollution through much of the twentieth century from two principal factories, a zinc works and a pulp mill, the Derwent Estuary was poisoned to close to the same levels as Minamata Bay with heavy metals and has, in consequence, some of the highest concentrations of mercury, zinc, lead, cadmium and arsenic in the world. Over recent decades, much of the ongoing pollution has been cleaned up and the remnant heavy metals become sandwiched beneath cleaner sediment, effectively removing them from the marine ecosystem.
Then scientists’ work revealed that when the sea’s oxygen levels sank too low – a condition known as hypoxia – previously trapped heavy metals could be dragged back up and released into the marine ecosystem by biochemical processes. Hypoxia can occur when algal blooms die off and sink to the sea floor where, in the process of rotting, they draw oxygen from the sea water. Algal blooms are, in turn, stimulated by excess nutrients.
For this reason, the key to managing the critical risk of heavy metal pollution in the Derwent Estuary was to minimise the possibility of algal blooms by reducing nutrient discharges. For the DEP, reducing nutrient pollution from sewerage systems became not just important of itself but also an urgent measure to stop the re-poisoning of the Derwent River Estuary and its marine life with heavy metal. To this crucial end hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ and industry dollars were spent.
Coughanowr realised, however, that the scale of the salmon farmers’ gigantic expansion into Storm Bay could reverse these millions of dollars of investment and decades of work cleaning up the Derwent by massively increasing nutrient levels in the previously pristine waters of the bay.
According to Coughanowr, if just 5 per cent of the nutrient discharge from the North Bruny expansion, located near the estuary mouth, entered the Derwent, it would effectively cancel out the most recent $50 million sewage treatment plant upgrade, which was specifically designed to reduce nutrients. She spearheaded a detailed submission from the DEP that highlighted this and other problems to the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel when in 2018 it was discussing approvals and conditions for the expansion into Storm Bay.
Yet when environmental scientist Louise Cherrie raised exactly this issue – of the massive effluent discharge and the possible remobilisation of heavy metals – as a member of the panel, she recalls only one panel member, Professor Colin Buxton, commenting, to dismiss such a potential risk.
A scientist with extensive experience working with resource and heavy industries, Louise Cherrie came on to the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel in January 2018. She believed in a sustainable salmon industry and felt she could help the industry as it came out of a crisis in the wake of a disastrous failed expansion at Macquarie Harbour. She found support in Professor Barbara Nowak, a specialist in aquatic animal health and biosecurity, who came on to the panel at the same time.
The panel was widely understood – including by Cherrie and Nowak – as being an independent Tasmanian government body charged with providing advice to the minister about whether fish farms should or should not be approved, and, if approved, under what conditions.
But this was not the case.
It was a convenient idea for the salmon industry and government, giving the appearance of proper process and probity. In 2011 the panel, for the only time in its history, had refused a plan by Tassal for the expansion of a fish farm in D’Entrecasteaux Channel over a unique, ecologically rich reef at a site called Soldiers Point. The expansion would have killed the reef, which was considered rare by University of Tasmania scientists. Another brave scientist, Dr Lois Koehnken, a highly respected water quality and river scientist, was then a panel member and was seen as central to that refusal.
“As a scientist you seek the truth, you tell people the risks,” was how Dr Koehnken explained the way she conducts her work to me. “And you assume decisions will reflect this information.”
In the wake of the Soldiers Point refusal, that assumption could no longer be taken for granted. On 29 August 2011 – four months after the decision – Dr Koehnken was replaced on the panel by Professor Colin Buxton. Buxton had been publicly vocal in his advocacy of super-trawlers in Tasmanian waters and in 2013 declared “consumers should throw away their sustainability shopping guides, because all wild catch fish in Australia is sustainable”. Groups such as the Tasmanian Conservation Trust did not regard Buxton as “an appropriate person to provide balanced and independent scientific input to the panel’s decisions … he has a very strong leaning towards the interest of fishing and aquaculture industries”.
Within three months of Buxton’s appointment, the three salmon companies applied to expand the salmon farming leases in Macquarie Harbour by 60 per cent – the largest expansion of salmon farming in Tasmania’s history. A week later, in December 2011, the then Tasmanian Labor government, with Liberal support, introduced amending legislation, the effect of which was to ensure that the Marine Farming Review Panel never again rejected a salmon company plan: power to approve or reject a new fish farm now belonged with the minister. Defending the legislation in Parliament, the then minister, Bryan Green, “explicitly stated that the amendments were proposed in response to that [Soldiers Point] decision”.
While there was a public outcry about possible environmental damage, the lack of baseline data, and potential impact on the endangered maugean skate, the minister made it clear in a letter later that month that the amending legislation’s failure to address the lack of any rights of appeal against any decision made about salmon farming plans was “intentional”.
The public had been locked out.
With those changes the looming tragedy of Macquarie Harbour became inevitable – and in these dry details of governance it is possible to glimpse the chronicle of a death foretold. The panel became one more piece of the elaborate window dressing of a rogue industry that seemed to have the rules made up to suit its own bottom line. No new fish farm application could now be refused.
Seven years later, Louise Cherrie told me that she found “little to no appetite for genuine discussion”. Her “strong advice” to the panel was that their decision about Storm Bay be delayed for eighteen months to allow for proper scientific modelling to be done. To Cherrie it was very clear that the remobilisation of heavy metals was a plausible problem. Buxton asked, how does that even happen?
“Heavy metals in Derwent seafood are a known risk,” Cherrie explained to me. “Metals bound up in sediment could be remobilised with high nutrient loads. Mercury is the big issue for seafood. It is in a reasonably non-bioavailable form, but remobilisation means it can accumulate up through the food web and into wild fish species. If consumed, it then has serious health effects. The environmental disaster in Minamata Bay in Japan that caused death and mutation of foetuses was from methylated [remobilised] mercury in seafood.”
The wild fishery was threatened. The recreational fishery was threatened. The lucrative abalone fishery was threatened. Human beings were threatened.
Like Coughanowr, like Koehnken, Barbara Nowak had come to Tasmania, fallen in love with its beauty, and stayed. She had worked closely with the Tasmanian salmon industry from its earliest days. Like Cherrie, a supporter of a sustainable salmon industry, Nowak was aware of the growing issues around the industry and went on to the panel believing that she could support the industry by contributing to responsible planning. But she was to discover that was not possible.
Professor Nowak was on the panel in no small part because of her expertise on biosecurity and yet there was no up-to-date biosecurity plan for Storm Bay – or, for that matter, any salmon farm in Tasmania. From a biosecurity point of view, Professor Nowak found that the proposed proximity of farms “defied common sense”. She was told by other members that there was no point discussing or reviewing anything because in their view the minister would approve the expansion anyway.
Describing the panel sittings as “soul destroying”, Professor Nowak like Louise Cherrie had the strong sense that other members of the panel were regularly consulting with senior salmon company figures while making what was meant to be an independent, arms-length decision.
“Indeed,” the two women later wrote in their submission to the Legislative Council Inquiry, “the salmon industry had ready access to the panel to advise … and were consulted on frequent basis and at a minute [sic] notice to the Panel”. Cherrie, on the other hand, after doing “due diligence”, verifying information and data provided “to determine whether operators had earned the right to grow”, discovered “extremely concerning information and the only reasonable view I could form was that Storm Bay developments should not proceed as proposed”. Yet when she tried to present this new information to the panel she was told it was “too late to raise issues”.
“It became very apparent that the panel did not consider other stakeholders,” Professor Nowak says.
She was told, “We can’t stop the Storm Bay development.” When Nowak and Cherrie pushed back, arguing that they should learn from the catastrophe of Macquarie Harbour, they were told Macquarie Harbour was irrelevant to the Storm Bay proposal.
By tonnage of production, what was being proposed was Tasmania’s biggest ever industrial development. And yet there was no foundation for such a development – no adequate science to explain what would happen to these massive nutrient loads; there was an inadequate biosecurity plan, no biogeochemical model and no regulatory standard to hold the corporations to account. Both Cherrie and Nowak were profoundly concerned that Storm Bay was at risk of going the same way as Macquarie Harbour. Yet one of the worst man-made ecological catastrophes in Tasmania in the last twenty years was a cataclysm the panel had “an unwillingness to discuss and learn from”.
Macquarie Harbour is a large inland harbour, six times the size of Sydney’s, located in Tasmania’s south-west, a third of which lies in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area. For scientists it is a fascinating inland waterway. For the salmon companies it looked a potential bonanza. A small salmon farm had been there since the 1980s, and the salmon farmers knew that the harbour’s globally unique marine ecology meant it was free from the disease that ravaged its farms elsewhere in Tasmania and cost them so much money. They saw the giant harbour as perfect for growth with cheap production costs.
Others disagreed. Local salmon farmer Ron Morrison, as well as environmentalists and scientists, warned that the unique nature of the shallow harbour meant any large growth in salmon farming would inevitably result in an environmental catastrophe. They were ignored.
In 2012, Tassal and Huon Aquaculture began a gigantic expansion in Macquarie Harbour, which within six years triggered the very disaster that had been predicted. But instead of acting, the EPA and Tassal turned a crisis into a tragedy, doubling down on further expansion, and in Tassal’s case overstocking farms already breaching pollution thresholds.
By 2015, monitoring revealed dorvilleid worms in high abundance up to 7.5 kilometres from the fish farms. Dorvilleid worms are seen as “reliable indicators” of severe oxygen depletion on the ocean floor. They were found to have “increased in abundance” in these World Heritage Area waters. The bureaucratic response to this evidence of the destruction of a World Heritage Area ecosystem was to “cease using” dorvilleid worms as an appropriate indicator species.
Redefining what was evidence of a problem didn’t make the problem go away, though. In September 2014 the heads of Huon Aquaculture and Petuna (the third and smallest Tasmanian salmon farmer) sent an email, later leaked, to the Tasmanian premier, the minister for Primary Industries and Water, and a number of senior bureaucrats, alleging that Tassal “was about to breach the biomass cap on Macquarie Harbour, and that the Tasmanian regulator [EPA] was engaged in disingenuous and misleading conduct and that this was putting at risk both the health of the waterways and the future of the industry”.
In 2016, instead of decreasing the number of salmon, the Tasmanian government agreed to increase the Macquarie Harbour salmon limit to 21,500 tonnes. Through 2016 and 2017 Tassal and the EPA tried to blame the deoxygenation on numerous factors other than salmon farming. By 2017 the deterioration had grown so extreme that Huon Aquaculture took the director of the EPA and his minister to court for not properly regulating Macquarie Harbour. In an act that shadowed its closeness to politicians and bureaucrats, Tassal “entered the case on the side of the government”.
In February 2017, after the public outrage that followed revelations in an ABC Four Corners episode, “Big Fish”, that a science report had found all marine fauna within at least a 500-metre radius of a Tassal salmon lease, close to the World Heritage Area, was dead, the EPA was finally forced to act. It ordered Tassal to destock salmon leases at Macquarie Harbour. Tassal salmon farms were death zones.
In 2018, the EPA at last announced a reduction in the ceiling of production in Macquarie Harbour to 9500 tonnes. But by then it was too late. Over a million and a quarter salmon had died in consequence of catastrophically low oxygen levels. Worse, wild marine species suffered, most notably the rare maugean skate, only found in Macquarie Harbour. The species is now close to extinction with “the balance of the evidence” suggesting that it “is not able to reproduce in the current circumstances in Macquarie Harbour”. The long-term effect on the harbour was to devastate the entire ecosystem, including its World Heritage Area.
A highly critical 2017 University of Tasmania co-authored report, led by conservation ecologist Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick, found that despite salmon industry and government claims to the contrary, the cause of oxygen reduction was salmon farming. According to Professor Kirkpatrick and his co-authors, “the legal, regulatory and science governance … appear to have contributed to serious environmental degradation”. Macquarie Harbour, they concluded, was a case study in which “pollution from an industry appears to threaten legally recognised national and international natural values.”
Today, remote bays in the World Heritage Area, some distance from the salmon farms, are thick with green filamentous algae and black plastic pollution – the fatal black and green scar of salmon farming.
“There was an abundance of good science, collected by the government itself, that identified the huge risks to the harbour posed by the expansion,” Dr Koehnken told me. “Now they say we didn’t know then. We did know.”
Anywhere other than Tasmania, an environmental disaster on the scale of Macquarie Harbour would have seen a major public investigation or report, top bureaucrats losing their jobs, companies substantially fined and punished, new regimes introduced, new, far more rigorous regulatory codes implemented, CEOs pressured by their boards and politicians in the firing line.
But this was Tasmania, and in Tasmania it was all swept under the carpet so that, amazingly, the industry emerged not only unscathed and unpunished, but resolved on another massive public water grab. This time it was to be Storm Bay, the magnificent waterway between Bruny Island and the Tasman Peninsula. For many Tasmanians it was a case of déjà vu. The greater the crime, the greater the cover-up, and the more bald-faced the next ask, the next take.
As several scientists put it to me, referencing the infamous woodchipping monopoly that devastated Tasmania’s internationally unique wildlands through the 1990s and 2000s, poisoning Tasmanian life and corrupting its democracy, salmon farming is the new Gunns.
On the panel, Louise Cherrie repeatedly raised the troubling example of Macquarie Harbour, to no avail. Yet it was the same industry, the same companies, the same lack of rules, the same practices, the same lack of science, the same regulators, and the same key players. Cherrie was told that if Storm Bay was another environmental disaster like Macquarie Harbour, then “it was on the industry”; how “if the salmon industry collapsed that was the salmon industry’s problem”. Cherrie pointed out that it wasn’t just a problem for the industry: the collapse of the industry would mean Tasmanians would lose their jobs, and surely that mattered; Macquarie Harbour might never recover, and if Storm Bay were to suffer a similar fate, surely that mattered, too.
The salmon industry’s only answer to the many questions Macquarie Harbour raised was what they termed “adaptive management” – adapting management as problems arise. “It means push until it is too late,” says Cherrie, “and only react after the damage is done.”
Cherrie decided to do her own due diligence. She went to the EPA and asked to see how adaptive management had worked at Macquarie Harbour.
“If the Australian public saw what I saw that day,” Cherrie said, “they would not be buying salmon.”
She watched footage filmed beneath a salmon farm showing piles of faeces full of long white worms – the dorvilleid worms.
“It looked like it was snowing white worms,” Cherrie recalled, pointing out that while the public is allowed to see video footage from non-impacted marine farming sites, these videos of badly impacted sites are kept highly secret and the public is not allowed to see them. “Unlike any other food industry, consumers don’t see how Tasmanian salmon is made. The community couldn’t handle seeing that vision.”
The EPA – after reviewing the footage Cherrie found herself staring at in horror – told the salmon company there was a problem that needed rectifying. And yet eight months later the company had done nothing.
Such was adaptive management. Even when the damage was done, nothing happened. Even when the regulator had the evidence. Nothing. Cherrie was shocked. She had never seen such an absence of proper management by an industry, or such a failure by a regulator to respond. “You wouldn’t get away with any of this in mining,” she said. “I can’t understand how the Tasmanian salmon industry gets away with such negligent practices.”
According to Cherrie, the EPA had the power to force Tassal to act but chose not to push the most powerful corporation in Tasmania. The industry and the government, Cherrie felt, both had a lot of explaining to do.
But there were no explanations. There were no penalties and there was no action. There were just mounds of fish faeces accumulating in Macquarie Harbour. Cherrie explained how a marine ecosystem doesn’t readily recover from huge piles of fish faeces crawling with worms. “It’s clear evidence,” she said, “of a system way out of balance.”
She repeatedly advised the panel that the Storm Bay expansion couldn’t be considered without proper scientific modelling and until there was such modelling – which would take some years to complete – there could be no approval. Cherrie says that despite “clear and known scenarios for environmental harm and fish kills, operational plans to deal with these issues were non-existent or grossly inadequate.” There were no plans for storm events, waste management or net problems.
No heed was paid to the three days of public hearings and submissions. Community concerns were dismissed as irrelevant, despite the risk a lack of social licence presented to the industry.
The panel was adamant: the farm would go in because the minister would approve it anyway. The more Cherrie and Nowak tried to talk on the panel about the science the more they were treated with disdain. To Cherrie and Nowak it was inexplicable that the panel members acted against compelling logic to favour the industrial option.
When the two women scientists began to ask more questions and demanded to see more detail, their role on the panel came under attack. A senior government officer had to sit in on the final meeting simply to ensure Cherrie had her opinions heard. Panel members “were either openly dismissive of Nowak and Cherrie’s concerns or silent”. When Cherrie kept asking questions, she was told “it was too late”. They had to approve the gigantic expansion: the salmon companies were already growing salmon for deployment in Storm Bay.
Unable to halt the expansion, the two women scientists tried to effect small, responsible changes. Based on best practice elsewhere and citing numerous scientific studies, Professor Nowak argued that because of biosecurity rights there should be a minimum five-kilometre buffer zone between the proposed fish farms. A reduced buffer zone meant more fish farms, but it also meant a greatly increased risk of disease transfer. When told that if the farms were five kilometres apart a third farm would not be viable, Cherrie said, “Then it’s not viable.” The buffer zone was nevertheless reduced to four kilometres.
Cherrie, who prides herself on being a pragmatist who in her work with resource and heavy industries finds constructive outcomes, recalls that it was “the only time in my professional life I felt I couldn’t make a difference”.
Appearing before a confidential session of the Legislative Council’s Fin Fish Farming Inquiry in 2020, some details of which later became available in a heavily redacted Right to Information document, Professor Nowak said she was told by one panel member “that the industry can’t be controlled”. She went on to decry “an independent panel where the public believes there are independent people when they are not”. At the same session, Cherrie said that the process ensured approval: “Because they [the salmon companies] had made the application, they will get approved.”
Professor Nowak, an industry veteran, concluded that the panel was “a waste of taxpayers’ money”, later telling me it was than “a complete rubber stamp” for the salmon industry.
When Professor Nowak and Louise Cherrie announced they would resign, a government official told them they weren’t allowed to. They resigned anyway, Professor Nowak saying she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself had she stayed on. Far from being best practice, they wrote to the minister, the panel showed “an undue propensity to support what is operationally convenient for the aquaculture industry”.
The government refused to release their resignation letter.
What Louise Cherrie and Barbara Nowak’s experience seems to suggest is that it was all a done deal: that the Storm Bay decision had been made long before, not by public process but by private salmon corporations; and that the panel on which they sat was structured by legislation to answer not to parliament but to the salmon corporations’ need for profit. If this is so, the panel existed merely as window dressing to give the appearance of due process and probity where there was none.
The panel charged with reviewing proposed fish farms and making “recommendations to the minister in respect of draft plans, draft modifications and draft amendments” could only recommend the largest industrial development in recent Tasmanian history go ahead along the lines the salmon industry wanted. At the least, this shows the whole byzantine regulatory framework cited as world’s best practice is no more than an elaborate lie. At the worst, it suggests that no matter the evidence, no matter the concerns, no matter the science, no matter the history, no matter the consequences, the governance of the industry is run in knowing bad faith by a Tasmanian government in curious servitude to the greed of the salmon corporations.
And so, ignoring the lessons of Macquarie Harbour, rejecting advice about possible heavy metal contamination, lacking a social licence, and in the absence of scientific modelling without any adequate baseline scientific studies, against the advice of two of its principal scientists, who had resigned in protest, in the face of widespread community opposition, the panel recommended to the minister that the massive expansion of salmon farming into Storm Bay be approved.
Documents recently obtained by the ABC now reveal it did so in a meeting in which only three sitting members were present. With Cherrie and Nowak having quit, it had to rely on the votes of two members whose terms had expired to make its quorum of five – a move without ethical basis and of dubious legality.
In a final sordid twist, to complete the lie of proper process and as if to drive home the powerlessness of the women, the power of the salmon industry and the cravenness of the Tasmanian government, Cherrie and Nowak discovered that without their permission their names had been added to the approval decision.
This is an edited extract of Richard Flanagan’s Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, published by Penguin Random House Australia.