Toxic | Richard Flanagan #AUSnonfiction

At the beginning it’s sea was rich and wondrous. We’d snorkel and fish and swim and beach-comb.

Ignorance can be bliss sometimes.

Until this last month or so I had never really thought about where my smoked salmon came from. Other than somewhere in or around Tasmania, that is. I was proudly buying local product in the belief it was not only better for me, but for our Australian economy and the environment. Local companies would protect our precious local environments and our local governments would make sure nothing untoward would happen.

Okay, maybe not so much ignorant, as ridiculously naive and romantic!

It turns out that I was wrong on all three accounts. Except for maybe the financial well-being of some companies and their CEO’s.

Before I started Flanagan’s Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, I thought, if I thought about it at all, that a school of slightly dilapidated looking, but quaint, fishing trawlers left the wharves of Tasmania each morning to head out into open seas to find the salmon we ate. I had no idea that our salmon was farmed. Intensively farmed. Somehow I had missed that fact.

Ignorance is no excuse.

I am the kind of shopper that will source grass-fed beef and free range chickens and eggs as often as I can. I try to eat skipjack tuna caught by FAD-free Purse Seine and certified free range pork. I try to buy biodynamic or organic milk when I can and cheese sometimes. A recent podcast episode on A Positive Climate has convinced me to try the new plant-based v2food Rebel Whopper burger at Hungry Jacks one day.

I want to eat as sustainably as I can within practical means.

I believed that by eating Tasmanian salmon, I was doing just that.

Reading Toxic, I quickly learnt otherwise. I learnt about:

  • Environmental degradation of local waterways ‘the water once so clear, grew turbid with the pollution from the farms
  • political corruption ‘the only legislator is greed
  • despoiling the water supply ‘all the algal blooms occur below Huon Aquaculture’s new hatchery
  • the ignoring of scientific studies ‘redefining what was evidence of a problem didn’t make the problem go away
  • the inefficiency ‘it takes 1.73 kilograms of wild fish to make one kilogram of salmon
  • the issue of feed ‘largely fed on anchovy-based fishmeal and fish oil imported from Peru
  • petrochemicals ‘unless stabilised with chemicals, fishmeal and fish oil will go rancid, losing their precious omega-3 oils…the chemical stabiliser of choice is ethoxyquin
  • changing the eating habits of salmon ‘sought to make feed cheaper by lessening the amount of fishmeal in it and sourcing protein from other food streams…the majority of animal protein used in Tasmanian salmon feed is chicken-based…and soy’
  • contributing to the problems in the Amazon ‘Brazilian soy suppliers…”linked to slave-like working conditions, violent conflicts over land, illegal deforestation, the use of illegal pesticides and soy grown in indigenous territories”.’
  • salmon no longer offers the nutritional value that it did before ‘omega-3 oils…are only obtainable from the fishmeal and fish oil the salmon eat‘. As more non-fish based feed was used, the omega-3 in salmon decreased by up to 50% while the omega-6 increased.
  • the use of colouring agents to provide the orange colour we expect to see when we buy and eat wild salmon ‘the unpalatable grey flesh industrially produced salmon has in consequence…is dyed pink with synthetic astaxanthin
  • use of antibiotics ‘Tasmanian regulators tolerate antibiotic abuse in the state’s salmon farming

And I was only a third of the way through the book!

There was so much more about the condition and quality of life of salmon in farms. The chronic over-crowding whilst living in ‘toxic toilets‘ of ammonia and waste. The summer plagues of ‘low oxygen, gill disease, jellyfish blooms, pilchard virus‘ means that the salmon are regularly cleansed. This bathing process stresses the fish and can stunt their growth. Deformities and health problems are also common in farmed salmon.

But wait, there’s more!

  • jellyfish blooms ‘jellyfish kill salmon in hundreds of thousands by stinging them, yet…more salmon equals more jellyfish….Jellyfish blooms are not only a key indicator of a marine ecosystem wildly out of balance…they can also drive an ecosystem so far out of balance that it may never recover
  • seals ‘the floating feedlots that proliferate along the south-east Tasmanian coast are attracting fur seals in ever-growing numbers‘. To remove the seals, over the years the industry has tried sedating, trapping and moving the seal, shooting them with ‘beanbag rounds – a cloth enclosing 40 grams of lead bullets fired from 12-guage shotguns‘, water cannons and seal bombs.
  • sharks ‘perversely, white pointer sharks are attracted by low-frequency industrial noise’ (unlike whales and dolphins).
  • freshwater bathing is currently unregulated ‘leaving salmon companies free to dump the immense amounts of used, polluted water wherever and however they want
  • the noise ‘fish bathing is noisy‘ as well as the ‘low droning and constant heavy industrial noise from barge drops, cranes, venturation generators, feed compressors and net-washing machines‘. Plus, add in the noise that a fleet of tugs, trawlers and other boats can make.
  • plastic ‘the salmon industry’s massive floating feedlots are built out of thousands of tonnes of plastic‘ that breaks up, floating around the ocean, washing up on local beaches, causing damage to pleasure craft.

The chapters on state governance, regulators, the role of the RSPCA and the EPA in facilitating the growth and expansion of an industry wrecking havoc on the local environment, whilst ignoring all the scientific research are mind-numbing.

This was one of the most depressing and disheartening books I’ve read in a long time. The greed and corruption was relentless. The blind ignorance of many (I count myself in this number), and the willingness of all us to put up with this state of affairs.

Will I ever be able to eat salmon again? Is there any solution or way forward?

There are some small glimmers of hope on the horizon. Some Danish companies are sourcing their feed from non-Amazonian regions, closer to home. Some Norwegian companies are looking at the environmental costs of the production and seeking ways to make changes. In the US, Asia and Europe companies are trying to grow artificial fish meat. Land-based salmon farms are being developed that can be far more water efficient.

None of these solutions are perfect, but it is heartening to know that some people, some companies and some countries care enough to look for better options.

Book 10 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

Book: Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry
Author: Richard Flanagan
ISBN: 9781761044373
Imprint: Penguin
Published: 26 April 2021
Format: Paperback
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

31 thoughts on “Toxic | Richard Flanagan #AUSnonfiction

  1. Wonderfully informative review….I saw the cover and it just looks so omnious.
    I had the SAME ‘wake-up call’ when I watched this docu on Netlix.
    I haven’t touched a piece of fish…salmon…since!
    Seaspiracy examines the global fishing industry, challenging notions of sustainable fishing and showing how human actions cause widespread environmental destruction.
    Images are so shocking of the ‘instensive fish farms and I think it is time to
    read this book to complete my environmental education.
    These types of docu’s and books are hard to read…but necessary!


  2. I also eat Tasmanian salmon, thought I was doing the right thing.
    Might have to do some research into the barramundi farm near me who grow their fish in tanks (what are they feeding their fish?)


    1. Yes and how do they keep the tanks clean? And what do they do with the used water, and how much water do they use in the first place? All questions I didn’t know to ask before this book. I’d be curious to know as Flanagan did indicate that tank or land farmed fish may be one of the slightly better options going forward.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Or, not fished sustainably. Many fish are suss in fact in terms of fishing practice even if not farmed. As for farming, I believe barramundi is farmed in Asia. At least our local supermarkets do note the geographical origin of fish so we can avoid that.


  3. What little meat I eat is tuna, presumably also from fish farms. “Luckily”, maybe not this Covid, but the next, or the one after will bring the world’s population down to a level that can be fed without destroying both the land and the oceans.


    1. Tuna is my fish of preference too. My understanding is that it is wild caught BUT your comment made me go check. It is wild caught, largely because it’s a salt water fish unlike salmon and barramundi which move between sea and freshwater. BUT apparently tuna farming is starting to happen. Hmm…


      1. Flying over Port Lincoln, tuna fishing HQ, which you do flying Melb-Perth,, you can see the tuna pens out in the gulf. I think there was also a controversy a few years ago about them causing disease in small fish out along the Bight.


      2. Perhaps it is wild caught but largely because of the fact that so many other fish in the byproduct of trawling (which is devastating environmentally) can be sold as tuna; there is a whole ‘nother side to this industry though (slavery and indentured servitude, particularly in waters close to you). A great read on the topic is Ian Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean, very compelling and insightful, as well as being informative (and SOME of it optimistic and fascinating).

        Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s not one of those which is only important, it honestly is a great read. And I don’t want to spoil but there is a women’s rights related matter which is studied, too, that I found incredibly inspiring and invigorating (i.e. the lack of regulation creates opportunities of all kinds out there).

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure I’m up for reading this book, though I know I should be. I did know some of this, however, from two sources – a tour of the Gordon River a few years ago (which also takes in Macquarie Harbour) and a program on the ABC (Four Corners? I can’t recollect). They were enough to concern me. I have eaten significantly less salmon since then, because it is definitely tainted in my mind, but I still order it occasionally when I’m out, and very occasionally buy it, whereas I had before done both quite a bit.

    It is getting very hard to know what to buy these days. Like you, I try to buy sustainably. But, I don’t drive to the other side of town on the weekend to go to the farmers market for example, so I just try to make good choices at the local places I do go to.


    1. Back in the 80’s, I was a pretty vigilant teenager, making my family switch to recycled toilet paper, roll on deodorants, non-aerosol hair sprays etc. I then read the Australian Green Consumer’s Guide and changed the shampoos and soaps I used and moved to cleaner cleaning products. No wonder my family was delighted when I left home!!
      As I’ve got older though, I have come to realise that these individual changes or sacrifices make very little difference to the bigger scheme of things, if big companies and businesses and industries are not also doing the same. All they do is make me feel a little better.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have this discussion with with Mr Gums all the time. Practically, it makes you feel better but on the other hand there is also that theory that every bit helps.

        More than that, though, I think if many consumers make good choices (and I have to admit I don’t always though I try to be conscious) then that sends a message to the big companies. Just think how there are very few no caged-bird eggs in the supermarkets now. When I started buying free-range back in the 80s or 90s, they were hard to find. Now we can choose between them. That is surely the power of individuals making ethical decisions?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s an eye opening read all right. I haven’t eaten salmon since reading this book. I’ve stopped buying prawns too. I’m basically surviving on veg and pulses these days cos I haven’t eaten red meat for 30 years and I don’t like Australian chicken (they’ve been deliberately bred for size but don’t taste of anything).


      1. Yes, my poor Other Half has to resort to only eating burgers or steak when we go out because I won’t cook it. LOL. We’ve been together 21 years so I think he’s used to it now.

        Actually, did you see this book / salmon farming was mentioned on the 7.30 Report this week? It was quite a good piece for raising awareness in people who might never pick up Flanagan’s novel.


  6. How wonderful that his book has brought so much of this out for discussion; both your post and Kim’s drew attention to his writing and these global concerns in such helpful ways too.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A book that I found introduced a wealth of information that was useful on an everyday basis was Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith’s Slow Death by Rubber Duck; they take on various challenges to see how everyday objects and habits affect our health (I believe they monitor their tuna consumption for one of these chapters, for instance, but they also wrote a follow-up and the tuna “experiment” might have been in that book instead). It wasn’t so much a book that changed one habit for me (although it was influential) but a book that changed the way I thought about taking personal responsibility for being informed about things that I hadn’t spent time thinking about before…if that makes sense. It’s from Random House so might be available outside of Canada but, if it’s not, I’m sure there are similar books in Australia that you’d find interesting!


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