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Macquarie Harbour salmon: 1.35 million fish deaths prompt call to ’empty’ waterway of farms

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After it is revealed more than a million farmed fish died within six months in Macquarie Harbour, one salmon company effectively says “we told you so”, another says the dead fish were “replaced quickly” and the third says it has no obligation to detail its losses to the public.

Fish in the Macquarie Harbour

Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) confirmed 1.35 million salmon died in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast since last October.

An area management agreement report provided by Huon Aquaculture, Petuna and Tassal found the deaths were mainly due to an outbreak of pilchard orthomyxovirus (POMV), transferred from wild populations.

That report had not been made available to the public.

EPA director Wes Ford told ABC Hobart the 2017 “mixing of young fish with old fish” could exacerbate the likelihood of disease in the population.

“POMV can be exacerbated by stress caused by heat, low oxygen, and I think this summer we’ve seen some elevated temperatures and clearly some concerns about oxygen.”

He confirmed the EPA would be reducing Macquarie Harbour’s biomass limit by 21 per cent over the next two years, from 12,000 tonnes to 9,500 tonnes.

Salmon companies respond

Following today’s news of the death toll, the companies affected by the mass fish kill issued statements.

How salmon farming pushed Macquarie Harbour to the limit

A timeline of salmon farming on Tasmania’s west coast.

Huon Aquaculture said it was “disappointed” that it had warned other farmers and the Government in September that mixing young and old fish at the same site would increase the risk, but was “ignored”.

“Since then, we understand the practice [of mixing age groups] will cease in the future. Huon does not mix year classes of fish,” the company said.

Huon Aquaculture, which has clashed with rival Tassal in the past, said it was “important as an industry we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past”.

“We remain hopeful that biosecurity improvements will be a focus for the industry and the Government as a matter of urgency”.

Tassal said in a statement the fish deaths did not have a major impact on their activities.

“The POMV situation stabilised quickly and these fish were replaced quickly from our nursery, given they were only juvenile,” it said.

“Tassal and Petuna have worked proactively to embed better biosecurity and environmental outcomes for the harbour via a joint-venture farming operation, which enables both separation of year, class and extended fallowing periods for leases.”

Petuna said the culling of two fish pen populations after veterinary advice had helped to reduce the spread of the disease within its lease.

It said it would not disclose data on the company’s individual stock losses for the summer.

“Under the [Area Management] Agreement, each company confidentially provides its own specific data, which is then independently collated to ensure each company’s competitive market positions are not compromised,” Petuna said in a statement.

“The company is not required to report this information other than to the Marine Farming Branch, which it does monthly.”

The EPA’s Wes Ford said the losses would be “significantly above” what the companies would normally factor into production quotas.

While the disease proved devastating for the farmed salmon, it did not transfer to the harbour’s trout population, which survived, Mr Ford said.

Map of Macquarie Harbour fish farm leases

Harbour’s troubled history

Industrial salmon farming began in Macquarie Harbour in the 1980s, with Tassal establishing operations there in 2003, joined by Huon in 2008 and Petuna around 2011.

Four Corners: Salmon farm warning

The ABC’s Four Corners program takes a look at Tasmania’s salmon farming industry and its effects on the environment.

The waterway, which is adjacent to a World Heritage Area, had a biomass limit set at 9,500 tonnes of fish across all companies, however lobbying began to increase that soon after the release of an environmental impact study which stated the harbour could sustain 29,000 tonnes — with the desires for expansion by salmon producers backed by the

Labor primary industries minister Bryan Green.

Come 2016, the Hodgman Liberal Government’s Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff agreed to increase the biomass limit to 21,500 tonnes effective July 1 of that year.

In October, a Four Corners investigation into the Tasmanian salmon industry aired concerns from Huon Aquaculture that the waterway was on course for a catastrophe, with the Liberal Government later defending fish farming and its regulatory safeguards.

In November 2016, the EPA — which had taken over regulation of Macquarie Harbour — announced it was cutting the biomass limit to 14,000 tonnes “following an assessment of the most recently available scientific data”.

In February 2017, the EPA ordered Tassal to de-stock salmon leases at Macquarie Harbour, with the ABC revealing a science report had found a so-called dead zone under one of Tassal’s leases, the farming area closest to the World Heritage Area.

Salmon company Tassal defends its farming practices

Salmon farmers ‘have to get out of Macquarie’

On today’s release of the numbers of fish killed, the Greens’ environment spokeswoman Rosalie Woodruff said the harbour had been damaged — perhaps irrevocably — and called on the Government to step in.

“We have to have a moratorium on all fish farming. The salmon farming companies have to get out of Macquarie Harbour,” she said.

“It’s clearly the case that the system there is damaged, possibly beyond repair.”

Wes Ford director of EPA on wharf

Environment Tasmania said more than 2,000 Tasmanians had petitioned salmon companies to release a fish death toll, and accused the Government of concealing the figures in the lead up to the March state election.

Laura Kelly from Environment Tasmania said they were still looking for answers.

“The Government is still refusing to release the January 2018 [Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies] science on the harbour, while acknowledging that the report shows a worsening of conditions, increased marine species death under leases and four leases in breach of state regulations related to bacteria mats on the harbour floor,” she said.

Mr Ford confirmed the EPA would be reducing Macquarie Harbour’s biomass limit by 21 per cent over the next two years, from 12,000 tonnes to 9,500 tonnes.

He said that would not come as a surprise to the companies, which had seen a series of mass fish deaths and stock reductions over the past two years.

“Clearly, I’ve had to step down the biomass over a number of years now because the harbour has not been performing as it should,” he said.

“What I expect from this new biomass decision is that the harbour will actually improve, but of course there can be no guarantees.”

But Ms Kelly said the EPA’s latest biomass limit would not be enough to restore the harbour to healthy levels.

“A biomass of 9,500 tonnes will be maintained when biosecurity, animal welfare and endangered species protection all demand that Macquarie Harbour should be emptied of fish and given a chance to recover,” she said.


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