Fish Farms: a never-ending disaster

In the early hours of the 24th of November 2020 a pen at Huon Aquaculture’s lease in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel caught fire, resulting in the release of 50000 4kg non-native Atlantic Salmon into the surrounding waters. This is just one more incident to add to the farmed salmon industry’s ever growing list of incidents involving environmental harms, and violence perpetrated against other animals including fish and seals.

Pen on fire, Huon Aquaculture 24/11/2020

Huon Aquaculture has asserted that the release of over 50000 large predatory fish into an area they are not native to poses little to no threat to local fish populations. They have repeatedly cited a single study conducted by IMAS in 2018 to support their claims that escaped farmed salmon don’t hunt due to their reliance on pellets for feed. The tone of the post announcing the fire was almost jocular, as Huon Aquaculture encouraged recreational fish killers to go out and “clean up” what was their mess. Many of these people have reported success hunting escaped salmon using lures, which contradicts the claims made that the fish are incapable of adapting to hunting for their own food. Laura Kelly from Environment Tasmania states that according to IMAS, 15% of escaped salmon will hunt wild fish; this equals 7800 salmon from this single escape event alone.

And it is not the first. In December 2019 50000 salmon broke free from a pen at Petuna’s fish farm lease in Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania, after storms damaged the pens. In May 2018 over 120000 salmon were confirmed escaped by Huon Aquaculture, again after storms damaged pens. There have been allegations made that other mass escapes have occurred but have not been reported.

Then there are the on-farm deaths. In May 2018 1.35 milllion farmed fish died within six months at leases within Macquarie Harbour, affecting all three companies (Huon Aquaculture, Tassal and Petuna) with leases in the area. The deaths were as a result of an outbreak of pilchard orthomyxovirus, a pox virus that is transmissible between farmed and wild fishes, and is exacerbated by stress due to living conditions, low oxygen and heat. Entire pens of fishes were culled as a preventative measure, and swiftly replaced.

In January of the same year a mass death event occurred at Tassal’s Okehampton Bay leasing, with over 30000 salmon killed due to “human error” during a routine bathing operation. The bathing of fishes held in farming pens with fresh water is essential for their “health” prior to slaughter.

In May 2015 85000 salmon were killed when a seawater surge changed the oxygen levels in the water at Petuna’s leasing on the west coast; the fishes were suffocated to death whilst confined to their pens. Petuna brushed it off as a minor loss.

Despite mass deaths and manifest animal welfare issues, Huon Aquaculture received RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme accreditation for their farmed salmon in July 2018; the accreditation for “humane” salmon flesh products explicitly excluded any originating from Macquarie Harbour due to concerns relating to disease outbreaks and potential environmental impacts. Tassal was the beneficiary of a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund that enabled them to use the WWF logo on their products, until 2019 when the six-year long deal was “mutually ended.”

Then there’s the issue of seals. It’s not secret that seals love fish. And the presence of pens full of fish have proven attractive to local seal populations. Documents released in October 2020 revealed the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIWPE) approved permits for Tassal to keep up to 20 seals trapped in empty seal pens prior to relocation from the area, even as the department was investigating Tassal for breaking the law by doing exactly this. Wildlife officers who filmed and photographed the seals state the seals showed physical and behavioural signs consistent with starvation. Under the Seal Management Framework seals may be taken and held for relocation or for research into new seal-proofing and deterring technologies. In 2010 it was revealed that the Tasmanian government had approved the use of capsicum spray by fish farm workers against seals; in 2012 news reports revealed seals had been caged and subjected to capsicum spray at close range to determine its efficacy

Seals may also be shot at with less-lethal ammunition such as shot-gun bean bag pellets and underwater explosives, as a means to deter them away from the pens. From 2017–18 over 1000 beanbag shot-gun shells were used against seals, as well as 28748 underwater explosives. 8 diver encounters resulting in the “humane destruction” of a seal occurred, with only two such encounters being publicly disclosed. And yet only two workers filed reports of seal-related injuries between 2013–2018.

And reports of dead seals with head and body wounds consistent with being shot are not uncommon, the latest being reported in October 2020.

Fish farms are clearly an ongoing animal welfare disaster, let allone the question of animal rights. Some support the moving of the farms onto land, as a means to avoid the impacts of the marine environment, marine debris from broken farm infrastructure, and to avoid conflicts with seals. However, there will still be impacts upon wild fish populations even if the farms move onshore. Fish farms use a pellet feed that includes fish meal and oils sourced from wild fish populations, as well as soy meal, and the “waste” from slaughtered land farmed animals including chickens who are also fed pellets containing fish meal and oils.

Besides the immediate impacts on fishes and other animals such as seals, there have been multiple reports of debris being found in the water, jeopardising the safety boaters and marine animals, and even washing ashore. In 2018 a large salmon feeder owned by Huon Aquaculture washed ashore on Kingston Beach following the same storms that resulted in the release of 120000 from Huon Aquaculture’s leasing off Bruny Island.

This is neither a sustainable nor an ethical industry.

I am personally happy for the 50000 salmon who at least get a chance of freedom; that so many large fish can be legally crammed into a single pen awaiting their eventual slaughter defies belief. They deserve this chance, and have embraced the opportunity to escape as an expression of the agency humans so often deprive them of. But I mourn for the fish populations who have been impacted by the environmental damage caused by fish farms and who now have to contend with a sudden influx of predatory fish.

And I mourn for the millions of salmon who will never find the opportunity to swim free, who will be sucked through large tubes onto the slaughter boats or the onshore slaughter plants, whereupon their heads will be beaten in, and they will bleed to death whilst alive and immersed in slurry of ice and blood.

All too often the individual rights of fishes are overlooked in the conversations about our relationship with other animals. This must change.

What cannot change is the industry itself. There can be no reforming such a manifestly unethical and dysfunctional industry that has such significant ties with the government as to make it virtually untouchable. Whether on land or in the waters surrounding the state, fish farms cannot be allowed to expand or even exist.

Author of "Five Essays for Freedom: a political primer for animal advocates," total liberationist, activist and organiser.

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Writing Liberation

Writing Liberation

Author of "Five Essays for Freedom: a political primer for animal advocates," total liberationist, activist and organiser.

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