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
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 this land’s first storytellers.