Tasmania’s three major salmon companies reported 68 instances of increased salmon deaths at leases across the state between December 2019 and February this year, with more than a third of the reports relating to Tassal’s farms in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, documents obtained by the ABC reveal.

Key points:

  • Right to information documents show 68 reports of elevated salmon deaths in Tasmania were made in 15 months
  • A third of those reports related to Tassal’s farms in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, prompting calls for farming in the area to cease
  • The cause of all but one of the events remains unclear

It has led to renewed calls from the community for industrial salmon farming in the channel area, south of Hobart, to cease. 

Tasmania’s salmon companies are required under their license conditions to report elevated mortalities above 0.25 percent per cage for three or more consecutive days. 

Salmon giant Tassal notified the EPA of increased mortalities on 48 occasions between December 2019 and February 2021 —  27 of which were for leases in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. 

Thirteen of the mortality reports for the channel occurred over a four-week period starting in January this year, including one event spread across 11 cages on January 19.

Tassal reports of elevated mortality

This map shows the location of Tassal leases that reported elevated deaths in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and the number of reports per lease.(

ABC News: Paul Strk

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Killora Community Association spokesman Gerard Castles said the high number of reports for incidents in the D’Entrecasteaux channel demonstrated that the area was not suitable for salmon farming. 

“If there were this many instances of live sheep deaths or chicken deaths in chicken farms it would be nothing sort of a national scandal,” he said.  

Tassal said the channel had provided a good flow and cool bottom waters for more than 30 years, and that environmental monitoring data showed stability in the waterways and a healthy marine ecosystem. 

The EPA said the incidents in the channel did not require further action. 

Huon Aquaculture reported 11 instances of increased salmon deaths across the 15-month period, including a significant mortality event due to a bathing incident in Storm Bay that killed 12,000 fish in December 2019.

The event was a result of human error, after an employee failed to turn on the oxygen system and properly monitor oxygen levels. 

Petuna recorded nine —  five of which were for one lease in Macquarie Harbour. 

Aerial view of a salmon enclosure.

Tassal is the biggest of Tasmania’s three companies that produce farmed atlantic salmon.(

Supplied: Tassal

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The cause behind all of the events, other than Huon’s bathing incident, remains unclear because the information has been redacted. 

The EPA said companies were not required to notify it of the cause of deaths, but the information was sometimes provided. 

It said it would release information if there was an environmental matter the public should be informed of. 

‘Was the rest of the bay at risk?’

In Long Bay, on the Tasman Peninsula, residents have been worried about swathes of algae and declining water quality over the past few years. 

Last summer, they became increasingly concerned about deaths at Tassal’s salmon lease after seeing trucks coming and going, which they believed were removing dead salmon. 

Scientist Christine Coughanowr was one of those who began asking questions of the EPA and Tassal about fish deaths.

Dr Christine Coughanowr holds a blob of algae.

Dr Christine Coughanowr is concerned about the heightened number of salmon deaths in the area.(

ABC News: Alexandra Humphries

)

She said information was made available in other countries, but not in Tasmania. 

“When the fish deaths started happening we hadn’t received that water quality information either from Tassal or the EPA and we became quite concerned,” Dr Coughanowr said.

“What was going on? Was the rest of the bay at risk? Was it a disease issue, was it a low oxygen issue? 

A woman stands next to a waterway with salmon farm enclosures in the distance.

Trish Baily says the lack of information from Tassal is causing distrust in the community.(

ABC News: Alexandra Humphries

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Local Trish Baily, who is vice-president of the Tasmanian Alliance for Marine Protection, said there was plenty of activity at Tassal’s base in February and March, but she could not get answers on how many fish had died. 

“It’s this lack of information on the biomass, of the activities that are going on, transparency on the amount of [mortalities] that is just leading to the endless distrust or the growing distrust that the public have,” Ms Baily said. 

Tassal said seasonal changes in the environment over summer, such as increased jellyfish, plankton or amoeba populations could impact salmon welfare. 

Tassal employee complained about information released to ABC

In February, the EPA did confirm deaths at Long Bay, in an incident spread across five cages, after receiving an inquiry from the ABC. 

The latest documents, obtained under right to information laws, reveal Tassal subsequently accused the state’s environmental watchdog of breaching an agreement between salmon companies and the Tasmanian government restricting the public reporting of mass salmon deaths for months after they happen.

A Tassal employee, whose name has been redacted, complained to EPA Director Wes Ford via text message and email, saying the company was concerned about the extent of the information provided, citing an agreement with government. 

“It appears to be a breach of the routine disclosure and reporting scheduling agreed between the Tasmanian government and the three salmon companies within the salmon portal system and as detailed on the portal itself which sets out disclosure in accordance with our ASX listing,” the Tassal employee’s message said. 

The ABC has asked for the details of this agreement from the state government, but they were not provided. 

The EPA said it was not clear what agreement was being referred to. 

According to the government’s salmon portal, listed companies must report mortalities at set dates each year, and information will then be updated to the portal the following quarter — months after the incidents occur.  

The salmon portal does not include information about lease numbers or names where mortalities occur, the number of cages involved, specific dates or months when they happen, or the likely cause behind mortalities.

Mr Ford replied to the Tassal employee that he had needed to respond to the ABC query due to its specific nature, but that “in this case I did not provide a detailed or a complete response to the questions posed by ABC“.

In fact, the EPA confirmed only one report of elevated mortality in the two weeks before the ABC’s inquiry, despite the documents showing two reports had been made by Tassal at that stage.

The environmental watchdog later refused to confirm whether any subsequent reports were made, but the documents show there were two further mortality reports in February — a total of four reports within three weeks. 

The EPA said the first two reports of elevated deaths at Long Bay were initial and progress reports on the same ongoing mortality event, and that Tassal continued to provide updates until deaths in all pens dropped below the reporting threshold. 

Salmon companies report nearly 70 instances of increased fish deaths
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