Swimming upstream

The Tasmanian salmon industry has enjoyed an enviable reputation as an innovative, sustainable producer of one of the world’s healthiest forms of protein. The industry is valued at $700 million at farm gate, and employs around 2,000 people in a state with few other growing industries. While there are a number of small producers, Tassal, Huon and Petuna are the major players – cooperators as well as competitors. Tassal has been the industry’s poster-child, founded in 1986 and listed on the ASX in 2003, it has expanded production, enlisting environmental groups to develop monitoring and reporting systems, and demonstrating a commitment to transparency -while driving consumption through innovative products and promotion.

Almost a year ago a Four Corners expose raised concerns about Tassal’s operations. Frances Bender, founder of Huon, was front and centre of the program – reluctantly airing the industry’s “dirty laundry”. Bender is continuing to seek stronger regulation of marine farming through the Supreme and Federal courts of Tasmania. Bender alleges the Tasmanian government and the state’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) did not adequately or fairly manage the expansion of salmon farming, and that the government favoured Tassal when it made decisions and concessions that led to expansion that was too rapid.

The details of Bender’s concerns will be battled out in court, but the wider issue for the industry is how salmon farming can maintain its clean-green image with consumers. Food production in such a pristine environment is fraught, if there is evidence that government agencies were lax in their regulation of the industry, and that the sector’s self-imposed monitoring systems are fatally flawed – it would be a serious blow to salmon production, and aquaculture more broadly in this country.

Governance is a key concern of Tassal’s critics. As a listed company, Tassal is under pressure to continue to expand and make profits certainly, but it also needs to demonstrate it is doing this responsibly. Aquaculture systems are still in their infancy, and while science has featured heavily in the development of production and waste management systems there is risk that boundaries are tested and crossed.

According to Bender, Tassal has been prepared to take on a riskier interpretation of the science compared with Huon and Petuna, and somewhere in the middle is a government managing these two perspectives. The legal battles swirling around Tasmania’s salmon industry highlight the fraught territory of corporate imperatives versus environmental responsibility. The outcome of this public feud will only serve to undermine consumer confidence in what was perceived as a healthy, sustainable food.