Editor’s note: In what Richard Flanagan describes as “one big lie,” Australian consumers have been fed the line that farmed salmon is as clean and healthy as the Tasmanian waters the fish are raised in. A look below the surface however reveals an industry that, as it expands aggressively around the Tasmanian coastline, is choking the life out of the island’s fabled marine environments.
From his shack on Tasmania’s Bruny Island, Booker-Prize-winning author, Flanagan witnessed the industry degrade local waterways and deplete native fish stocks. He’s seen a billion-dollar industry capture the ear of government and silence critics … and an industry pushing ecosystems to the point of collapse. His book, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, is a chilling read for anyone who has swam, surfed, dived, fished or kayaked in sparkling Tasmanian waters. And even more troubling for anybody who eats Tasmanian salmon.
The following excerpt opens the book.
In the beginning its sea was rich and wondrous. We’d snorkel and fish and swim and beachcomb. Marvelling. So many people came to visit and stayed with us in that old vertical board shack on Bruny Island. And everyone felt it was one of those special, magical places.
The shack became our family’s heart-place. Soon it also became where I went to write. I’d live there for up to six months of the year. It combined teeming life with an improbable serenity so pronounced it was possible to distinguish birds—an eastern rosella, say, from a shrike thrush—by the noise their wings made cutting the air. For near twenty-five years its beauty, its wonder, its lively tranquillity, fed my writing.
The large waterway on to which the shack faced, D’Entrecasteaux Channel, was famous for its scallops, its oysters and flathead. Crayfish and abalone could be had. I would boast to friends of how the place crawled with life. Penguins nested under our shack; I’d wake in the middle of the night to the soft sound of dolphins breaching, and increasingly whales were returning.
In 2002 I became aware of noise from a small salmon farm a kilometre and a half across the water, a farm so inconsequential I had never really thought about it. I reported the noise to the Tasmanian government department responsible, the Marine Farming Branch. They investigated, the noise stopped, and it seemed an end of things.
Then in 2005 noise returned.
This time everything was different. The farm had a new operator: Tassal, the largest salmon company in Tasmania. The company had a chequered past, and had only recently come out of receivership. Announcing a new focus on growing, and slashing costs, it had purchased Aquatas, the previous operators of the farm. With others, I went back to the government.
A senior bureaucrat at the Marine Farming Branch was very clear: Tassal, he said, was a nightmare. “I can’t do anything,” he said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head. “If I do something, Tassal rings the minister’s office, and the minister’s office rings me. So I can’t help.”
I have often thought about that strange day since. Government no longer seemed to be government, regulators no longer were burdened by the need to regulate, rule breakers had through an incomprehensible metamorphosis become rule makers, and the new rules seemed made not by parliament but by a profit-and-loss ledger—by, in other words, greed.
The senior bureaucrat advised us that our only hope was to deal directly with Tassal.
And for the next fifteen years we did. Over fifteen years you might expect any industrial operation, particularly one with concerned neighbours, to gradually become quieter and cleaner. You would certainly expect government to improve regulation. But that’s not what happened. The government regulators did nothing. As salmon farming industrialised, the farm grew larger, noisier and filthier, flogging our waters harder and harder, a Tassal senior employee once confiding that they breached their stocking limits there by 50 percent.
For fifteen years our community tried to find an honourable compromise with Tassal. None of us wanted a fight. We wanted the beauty and happiness of our world to continue. That was all. We didn’t like the growing evidence of marine pollution, of a struggling marine ecosystem, but we felt these were beyond our tiny influence, so we restricted our entreaties to noise only. We didn’t like the salmon farm, but we felt compelled to accept it in a “live and let live” spirit.
But while we let Tassal live, things began to die.
The water, once so clear, grew turbid with the pollution from the farms—uneaten food pellets, the tonnes of fish shit that fell to the sea floor below the cages, a sludge slowly swept by tide and current through the greater waterway that is D’Entrecasteaux Channel. Algal growths fed by the massive nutrient outflows from the sludge began appearing on the rocks and on the seagrass beds. The seagrass began to retreat. Yet the process was slow, so slow as for a long time to be almost imperceptible.
Some things, though—strange things—were unmistakeable: there were fewer and fewer fish, there was more and more noise, and the farm began to take on the appearance of a heavy industrial site. Everything began accelerating. From being few fish to catch there were suddenly none. Great factory ships with their huge diesel engines now beat up and down the Channel 24/7. Sometimes they set up at the farm opposite and worked day and night, the noise, as one neighbour put it, like the sound of a semi-trailer reversing under your bedroom window.
Whenever the community complained, Tassal responded with evasions and little action. What little they would do, we would discover was soon undone. When pushed, they deceived and dissembled. Every promise Tassal made to our community, they finally broke. Every agreement Tassal made, they ultimately dishonoured. When pressed, Tassal would argue the farm was within regulations, though there were very few regulations, and what regulations existed were weak, and were, in any case, never enforced. There was no cop on the beat.
When it came to the salmon industry, we found ourselves with no rights as citizens. Like favela residents in Rio de Janeiro who, because the police won’t enter favelas, have to ask drug lords to administer justice, we had no choice but to seek redress for the salmon farm’s problems from the salmon farmers. And what we met was an industry so drunk on its own power that rather than address these many problems, it happily worsened them, opening up nearby “zombie” leases as new farms without notice or consultation, secure in the knowledge that locals were powerless, that no one dared stop the industry, and that the government and its bureaucrats would do nothing.
We were condemned to live amid the immense damage done when government abrogates its responsibilities and the only legislator is greed. And so, when we began noticing these changes, we tried to ignore them. Because we knew we were powerless. As well as noise, algae and slime kept increasing. And as they increased, other things mysteriously disappeared.
Fourteen years ago, I saw my last abalone. Eleven years ago, my last crayfish. Ten years ago, the penguins vanished. Then the cod. Then the tiny maireener shells disappeared—the same shells that Truganini and her people once gathered at the north end of Langford’s Beach with which to make their necklaces. The water lost its clarity as more and more fish shit poured into the Channel. More algae. More of the coastline rimed with a bright-green slime. More of a strange bubbly brown broth on the once clear water’s top.
And we tried to ignore these things; we tried to pretend they weren’t happening. I tried to ignore how, when I kayaked, the water felt different, dead rather than alive, sad rather than joyful, how it was now full of strange jellyfish blooms. I tried to pretend the waterway, once so serene, wasn’t vibrating all the time from the salmon companies’ giant factory ships thumping up and down daily, hourly. We didn’t speak about how no one saw dolphins anymore. We didn’t speak when the seahorses disappeared. When the weedy seadragons disappeared. When the striped cowfish were no more. When the seagrass started vanishing. We did talk two years ago about how the flathead were gone, but then we stopped, because it was too sad and everyone knew why they were gone.
And I felt so ashamed.
I’d had many friends come and stay because I was so proud of our island. But now I felt disgust and weariness, a shame too deep, until writing this, to be named. I stopped asking them. The noise would often be constant, twenty-four hours a day for weeks, and through summer sometimes months, on end.
Last year I had planned to spend six months at Bruny finishing a new novel. But the noise was intolerable. Worse, the sea seemed sick and I felt an unbearable sadness, and I had to leave. For the first time in almost a quarter of a century I didn’t finish a novel at Bruny.
After twenty-three years I had been driven from my workplace. I felt sick and cold and lost, as if something fundamental had been stolen from me and my home defiled by thieves as I lay sleeping. Only now can I see that all that time, those many, many years, that long sleep, we were being played for fools by Tassal. We were tricked into colluding in the slow death of everything we loved, the destruction of everything that had enabled me to write my books. Because while we acted in good faith, Tassal was acting in bad faith.
They have destroyed what we loved. They have stolen our water, our serenity, and our beauty. They are killing our Channel, one of Tasmania’s most beloved and iconic waterways, and, worse, its creatures. And unless checked, they will destroy so much more of what is unique and offers Tasmania a future in the twenty-first century.
The salmon farm opposite my shack has more than a million living fish packed into swirling vortexes of filth. The term “farm” is a polite misnomer for what is in reality a floating feedlot. In just a little more than thirty years these floating feedlots have grown from one fish pen to huge cages scarring much of southeast Tasmania’s once iconic coast, from the Tasmanian Peninsula to Bruny Island to the Huon Valley, as well as the west coast’s Macquarie Harbour—and, worse, they are destroying much of these coastal areas’ marine environment.
I began talking to others about what had happened. Each person would suggest someone else, and in this way I met professional fishermen, abalone divers, scientists, bureaucrats, academics, doctors, shackies, and local after local. I discovered that an industry parading as clean, green and healthy is in so many ways the exact opposite; that its claims of world’s best practice and high environmental standards are no more than slick marketing to hide a legacy of environmental destruction, bullying, grossly inadequate regulation and questionable political influence, in service of producing a highly artificial but profitable protein. I learnt that the Tasmanian salmon industry—today valued at a billion dollars—plans to double in size over the next decade. I learnt that with its present practices, such a goal is only achievable by a further massive grab of public waters—likely to be announced in the first half of 2021—with the considerable and possibly irreparable environmental damage that will ensue.
And I discovered one community after another around southern Tasmania that had been similarly lied to and deceived as we had been, and worse, as we had also been, betrayed by our government and sold out by our regulators. I found that the salmon industry had few friends among ordinary Tasmanians. I met people whose lives had been broken by salmon farming, their soul worlds destroyed by a rogue industry. I met whistle-blowers in government and industry and science who had had enough; brave person after brave person prepared to go on the record. Their stories were shocking: a deeply disturbing web of intimidation, threats, public and corporate malfeasance, environmental destruction, and a food product the ingredient list of which would frighten the least food conscious.
I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the story of what happened, and how it happened, and all that is being destroyed to make the Tasmanian salmon we eat.
Toxic is published by Penguin Books Australia.