The scale and cause of the deaths of a large number of farmed salmon in February remain a mystery, with documents obtained by the ABC revealing the director of Tasmania’s environmental watchdog assured the fish producer he “did not provide a detailed or complete response” to questions from the broadcaster.
- Tassal has failed to provide details to the ABC on the size and scale of a mass salmon death from February
- Days after the deaths the EPA director sent a reassuring email to Tassal saying he gave incomplete answers to media questioning
- A public meeting at Hobart’s Town Hall on the impact of salmon farming reaches full capacity
On February 13, the ABC revealed Tasmania’s largest salmon producer Tassal had reported a ‘salmon mortality event’ across five of its farming pens at its Long Bay lease near Port Arthur, south east of Hobart.
Tassal has refused to provide details on the scale or cause of the deaths to the ABC.
At the time, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) confirmed it had been notified by Tassal of increased mortality in five pens over three days, but also refused to provide details about the likely cause to the ABC.
Right to Information documents now show EPA director Wes Ford responded to an email from a Tassal employee two days after the story was published.
The name and position within the company of the Tassal employee was redacted in the documents released to the ABC.
Mr Ford’s correspondence to Tassal came after the company raised concerns about Mr Ford’s release of information to the ABC about the event.
“The fact that the media was pursuing a particular line of enquiry and asked specific questions about mortality and Long Bay leaves me in a position where I needed to respond,” Mr Ford wrote to the Tassal employee.
Mr Ford wrote that whatever response he issued he would be criticised, “either by the company who is responsible for the issue, or by the media, or by the public.”
“In this case, I am being criticised by all three, you saying I should not have released information, and the ABC and community members or [sic] saying I am not being transparent,” Mr Ford’s email said.
“I need to assess each media request on its merits with a view of releasing what I believe is sufficient to deal with the request.”
Mr Ford went on to write he had informed Tassal about the media query from the ABC and of his response, which he was not obligated to do, and that if Tassal believed information was market-sensitive the company should seek legislative protection from the government.
Tassal on Wednesday confirmed it raised concerns with the EPA about its release of information following the February story, “as it was outside the previously agreed processes established to provide information to the public on the salmon portal”.
The salmon portal, a website managed by the Tasmanian Government’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment does not yet contain any details about the mass fish death event.
‘Happy to discuss our response’
A week after this exchange between the EPA and Tassal, the ABC attempted to follow up about the mass salmon deaths, by asking the EPA whether there had been a subsequent notification from Tassal about increased salmon mortality at Long Bay, or whether the initial mortality event had extended for more than three days.
The documents obtained by the ABC now reveal there was an internal email discussion between Mr Ford and other EPA employees — whose names have been redacted — about how best to respond to the query.
In it, Mr Ford wrote it was difficult to respond simply.
“We can say there has been a subsequent report but we don’t have a reporting structure the (sic) says wen (sic) an episode has effectively cease (sic). Ie. if we get a report covering day 1-3, and the mortality is still elevated day 5, what, if any report to we get? Happy to discuss our response.”
Ultimately, the EPA responded only that elevated mortality could be experienced by all companies over summer, that it was an operational management matter for companies, and “the EPA will not be providing detailed responses on each report it receives from companies”.
The ABC has since obtained a letter from Mr Ford to a nearby resident of Long Bay, dated April 28, which indicates Tassal notified the EPA of increased mortality in both February and March this year, confirming the deaths occurred over more than just the initial three-day period in early February.
Minister’s comments clarified
Before the documents were released on Wednesday afternoon, Primary Industries Minister Guy Barnett was asked whether transparency around salmon farming mortality events needed to be improved.
His response indicated that new information had been provided to the EPA, but a government spokesman later walked back the comments.
“In terms of the advice I’ve received, the EPA has received that information, they are considering that and I’d certainly look forward to further information in that regard, and look forward to following that up in due course,” Mr Barnett said on Wednesday morning.
The spokesman later clarified the government was not aware of any recent salmon mortalities.
The EPA was contacted for additional comment.
Flanagan figurehead of pushback
The revelations come amid surging concern about the regulation of Tasmania’s salmon industry.
A public meeting at Hobart’s Town Hall on Wednesday reached capacity half an hour before it began, with hopeful attendees turned away at the door.
The group was told celebrated author Richard Flanagan’s latest work, Toxic, about the aquaculture industry, had been reprinted four times and was sold out since its release last week.
Flanagan addressed the crowd, telling them the fight against the salmon industry was “a battle for the island’s soul”.
“It should be self-evident that using Hobart’s drinking water catchments as — in the words of one scientist with extensive experience working with the aquaculture industry — sewage settling ponds for salmon hatcheries is not just wrong but profoundly dangerous,” he said.
“That risking the heavy metal contamination of some of our most popular wild recreational fisheries with mercury poisoning as other scientists have pointed out, is not just careless but potentially criminal.”
Flanagan said he could not explain the close relationship between the industry and Tasmania’s bureaucracy and politicians, but “it has to end.”
“I promise you this, we shall prevail, and we shall win, because in the end what remains, what is indestructible, is our love of our island.”
The meeting called on the government to make public the areas around Tasmania’s coastline being considered for expansion, with the industry hoping to double in size by 2030.
The group also wants major supermarkets to stop selling Tasmanian salmon until a sustainability framework is developed.