Big Fish: Four Corners investigates the business of salmon farming - Environment Tasmania

Big Fish: Four Corners investigates the business of salmon farming

Environment Tasmania recently appeared on the Four Corners investigation into intensive salmon farming in Tasmania waters. The show included interviews with scientists and industry leaders who raised concerns about the sustainability of Tassal’s production in Macquarie Harbour and their plans to expand into high value conservation, fishing and tourism areas on Tasmania’s pristine east coast. The show also raised concerns about the money exchanged between both Tassal and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Tassal and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as part of a process that has allowed Tassal to feature the logo of both organisations on their products, to communicate to consumers that Tassal’s salmon is, apparently, sustainably farmed.  


Watch the Four Corners investigation into industrial salmon farming here: 

Big Fish

By Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Jaya Balendra, Alex McDonald


Big Fish

Monday 31st October 2016

Big Fish: Four Corners investigates the business of salmon farming.

You'll find it in your supermarket fridge, on sushi trains, and in fish shops all over Australia. Salmon is Australia's favourite fresh seafood and we consume tens of thousands of tonnes of it a year.

This fish is not caught in the wild, it's grown and farmed in the waters around Tasmania and is a booming industry.

"Our eggs here are just starting to hatch... we have about 19,000 of these in every tray." Company spokesperson

But there's a lot consumers don't know about the making of farmed salmon.

"If a consumer were to see a salmon fillet that was a pale grey or a white, chances are they wouldn't buy it." Lawyer

Producing salmon is big business and the industry is reaping big profits with plans to turn it into a billion dollar industry within 15 years.

"I would say that salmon farming is clean and green though it's not a term that I'd like to use. I would say that it's a responsibly farmed product and I think we do it in an environmentally responsible way." Company spokesperson

Reputation is important and industry players promote their businesses as being open and transparent.

"I grew up just here in this area, I've spent my entire life in these waterways and I can't help but personalise it when people say that we're damaging this environment here." Company CEO

But those assurances are being put to the test with controversial plans by the biggest salmon company, Tassal, to expand into a new area, causing strong divisions in the community.

"Really divided. For jobs. And for what fish farms do. And you know, they're a mess, they're a dead set mess." Resident

"We're getting a world class industry... Why wouldn't you want it?" Local business owner

Those community divisions have brought attention and our unwelcome scrutiny.

"Four Corners doesn't come down unless the community is concerned, I get that... I would be happier if we just slid under your radar and you hadn't been here, but you're here." Company CEO

Big Fish, a ground breaking investigation by Caro Meldrum-Hanna and presented by Sarah Ferguson, goes to air on Monday 31st October at 8.30pm EDT. It is replayed on Tuesday 1st November at 10.00am and Wednesday 2nd at 11pm. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00pm AEST, ABC iview and at




SARAH FERGUSON, PRESENTER: Welcome to Four Corners.

We're constantly told by experts to eat more fish - its fats and nutrients are good for our health. And the most popular fish in Australia is salmon, (can I call the salmonids from Alex's table "salmon"?) we consume almost 40,000 tonnes of it a year.

But what do we know about how salmon is farmed, what the fish are fed and what the environmental impacts are. These issues have brought the industry to a flashpoint in Tasmania which has the biggest salmon farming area in Australia. Thousands of jobs in that state depend on salmon farming in communities where unemployment is chronic.

A few years ago the Tasmanian industry was worth $350 million, its more than doubled since then and is set to be a billion-dollar industry within two decades. Its future depends on its clean green image. But in tonight's program industry insiders and a trail of documents challenge that image, questioning the use of chemicals, intensive farming and reveal a corporate culture far removed from the marketing image of a wild salmon leaping from a pristine river.

Caro Meldrum-Hanna reports.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's late afternoon. On the east coast of Tasmania. A community is mobilising.


MAN: This is gonna become bigger than Ben Hur I'll tell you, and ah we ah we want to win this. And we don't want to destroy this is one of the iconic coasts in the world. Not Australia but in the world.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: There are plans for an 80-hectare salmon farm to be installed in the waters surrounding this town.


WOMAN: Now smell. Anybody worried about smell?

Yes yes. (laughter)

MAN Tassal in their general spiel are going to be open and transparent. There's no way known they are open and transparent.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The people here are taking on corporate juggernaut Tassal Australia's biggest salmon producer.

Its plans for Tasmania's east coast have divided the state.


MAN: Really divided. For jobs. And for what fish farms do. And you know they're a mess, they're a dead set mess.

MAN: It's a potential disaster

WOMAN: And the whole environmental issue is huge.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Tassal, an ASX listed company, boasts an annual revenue of more than $430 million dollars and rising.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Its planning for 28 huge ocean cages…filled with hundreds of thousands of fish year round. Out here in Okehampton Bay. Opposite the world heritage Maria Island.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This is Maria Island. As you can see its prone to some pretty wild weather but it's also a place of pristine waters and an almost untouched shoreline.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's feared tonnes of fish waste and sediment set to be generated by Tassal's Okehampton Bay farm could drift here.


WOMAN: That's fine when it's sitting on the bottom of the sea floor and its stationary, but you started disturbing that, that's a whole different thing because it will expand into the water column.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Back at the community meeting locals believe Okehampton Bay is just the beginning.

MAN: '28 pens? No bloody way. They're gonna be all the way down Mercury Passage, all down the coast. You can't tell me the infrastructure is just for 28 pens.'

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The people in this room suspect Tassal is secretly planning to extend out of Okehampton Bay into the unspoilt waters of Mercury Passage

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you believe what Tassal says when Tassal says it's not going in to Mercury Passage?

MAN: I don't believe a thing Tassal says, don't believe a thing.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Up and down Tasmania's coastline. Big business has well and truly moved in. And Tassal has had the biggest impact on the landscape.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Owning more pens than any other company.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Hi Linda. I'm Caro Meldrum-Hanna: Four Corners ABC. Thanks for having us.


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Linda Sams is Tassal's Chief Sustainability Officer. She's showing Four Corners the company's $50 million dollar high tech salmon hatchery. Where life begins in a plastic tray.

LINDA SAMS: So Caro these are our um fish hatch ah yolk si-site so we just see our eggs here are just starting to hatch. This is the …

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Oh my goodness look at that!

LINDA SAMS: Yeah so what we have about 19,000 of these in every tray through selected breeding, we've actually um been choosing salmon that do really well in Tasmanian conditions. We actually choose for the traits that we want

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Q It's such a, it's a, ah highly engineered.

LINDA SAMS: Oh I think it's like classic breeding.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The gender of every farmed salmon is female…

The result of an intensive breeding program where the brood stock have been manipulated, and can carry both testicles and ovaries.

In this one hatchery alone…there are four million baby salmon.

Once the salmon are big enough they're moved from the hatchery, to these concrete tanks

On to even bigger indoor pens before being taken out to one of Tassal's many marine farms.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So how clean and green in salmon farming Linda?

LINDA SAMS: Well I would say that salmon farming is clean and green though it's not a term that I'd like to use. I would say that it's a responsibly farmed product and I think we do it in an environmentally responsible way.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But there are questions about how responsible the salmon farming industry has been with the environment.

This is Macquarie Harbour. The birthplace of intensive salmon farming in Australia... situated on the west coast of Tasmania...right next to a wilderness world heritage area.

We're heading out to Macquarie Harbour where the big three salmon farming companies, Petuna, Huon and Tassal, have been growing salmon for the past 10 years. You wouldn't know it from looking at the surface of the water. And that's because the problem lies underneath, and that's the where the real damage has been done.

The regulator, the EPA, has told Four Corners…in the past year alone…21,000 tonnes of fish feed… has ended up in the harbour.

Creating massive areas of waste on the sea floor.

LAURA KELLY, ENVIRONMENT TASMANIA: This is Hells Gate. This is one of the reasons why it's incredibly stupid to intensively farm salmon in Macquarie harbour

Laura Kelly is the Strategic Director of Environment Tasmania...the state's premier environmental lobby.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: She says the salmon farming industry has damaged Macquarie Harbour which drains through a narrow passage called Hell's Gates.

In May 2015 around 85,000 thousand salmon belonging to Petuna suffocated to death - on one day - in Macquarie Harbour when the oxygen levels suddenly plummeted following a storm.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How bad were the conditions?

DR TIM DEMPSTER: Look I haven't seen conditions like this previously in any farm that I've looked at so it really is an extreme event that we recorded and that's almost unseen in salmon aquaculture elsewhere.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Dr Tim Dempster studied the conditions in Macquarie Harbour. In February 2016.

Recording alarming temperature spikes and dangerous declines in water oxygen levels the middle of the harbour.

At the point where the oxygen levels are that low they are experiencing high levels of stress destruction of his mussel farm. And how does that manifest what's happening?

DR TIM DEMPSTER: They're swimming around with their mouths open to get oxygen to flow across their gills, they're swimming more slowly, they're not feeding, they're not interested in feeding, they're essentially in a survival mode. Essentially really its ill-advised to have more fish in this harbour going through these conditions.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And after you came to those conclusions and provided this to government, what did it do?

The government increased the number of fish in Macquarie Harbour by 1,500 tonnes.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Can you make sense of that?

DR TIM DEMPSTER: Based on my work its perplexing to see that decision being made.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Hello Mark, Caro Meldrum-Hanna from Four Corners.

This is Mark Ryan. The CEO of Tassal.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What does the science, your science and your data tell you about the health and suitability of Macquarie Harbour, continuing forward for salmon farming?

MARK RYAN, CEO TASSAL: Yeah. No, it- it's interesting at the moment um the government's got a- a cap on um production around there. W- we're farming within that um cap so we see …

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Yeah but what does your science say?

MARK RYAN: So we see that that is sustainable and our science tells us that it is a sustainable um waterway so we- we're pretty comfortable with what's happening in Macquarie Harbour from a fish health and a fish um growth perspective.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Tassal says everything is fine in Macquarie Harbour?

FRANCES BENDER, HUON AQUACULTURE: I would have a totally different opinion to that.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Your opinion is?

FRANCES BENDER: My opinion is it's not fine.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Frances Bender, and her husband Peter, are the directors of Huon Aquaculture.

The second biggest salmon farming company in Tasmania. Tonight Frances Bender is breaking industry ranks.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Could this industry be heading for a catastrophe in Macquarie Harbour?

FRANCES BENDER: Yes it could be.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: For Huon's Frances and Peter Bender the plight of Macquarie Harbour has tarnished the reputation of the whole industry bringing unwanted scrutiny.

FRANCES BENDER: Four Corners doesn't come down unless the community is concerned, I get that and that's really sad, I find that sad, I find it sad that I'm sitting here having this conversation with you because we shouldn't be. I would be happier if we just slid under your radar and you hadn't been here, but you're here.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Frances Bender and her husband Peter began farming salmon in their beloved home state of Tasmania 30 years ago.

FRANCES BENDER: I grew up just here in this area, I've spent my entire life in these waterways, um and I can't help but personalise it when people say that we're damaging this environment here> This is our special place. So we are not ever going to be a position where we're going to damage our special place.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: From humble beginnings Huon is now a publicly listed company with annual revenue of more than $230 million accounting for around 35% of Australia's salmon market.

Making the Bender's one of Tasmania's greatest home-grown success stories.

FRANCES BENDER: I'm the salmon queen whether I like it or not (laughs) sometimes it's a bad thig sometimes it's a good thing.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What would be the market value of the stock you have here?

FRANCES BENDER: A lot (laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Worried about the state of Macquarie Harbour Frances and Peter Bender have made a radical decision- They're scaling down their operations there and moving offshore further out to sea, to more sustainable waters

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: You're thinking of future ways, what do you think then of companies who aren't.

FRANCES BENDER: Frustration. That's honest, frustrated, we're all frustrated, um and my comments will be controversial but the simple fact of th- matter is we've been here for 30 years, we want to be here for the next 30 years

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Have you communicated your concerns about Macquarie Harbour and what be coming to the Government?

FRANCES BENDER: We've been communicating with the Government fairly constantly and whenever we have any new information since 2013.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In 2014 Huon and the smallest salmon farming company, Petuna, wrote this confidential email to the Tasmanian government. In it, the two companies express 'concern' about the health of Macquarie Harbour, that Tassal have showed complete disregard for environmental and fish health warning signs.

The scathing letter was leaked to The Greens sparking a 2015 Senate Inquiry into the regulation of the salmon farming industry.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: After your September 2014 email was leaked, did you cop any flak?

FRANCES BENDER: Yes we did, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So what sort of criticism or blowback were you receiving?

FRANCES BENDER: That we were damage, we would be damaging the reputation of the industry and those around it and yet that's actually the one thing that we were trying to protect, um that's the irony of it and we still are.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In addition to criticism from industry, did you also receive criticism from the Government?

FRANCES BENDER: Indirectly. A yes, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What does that mean, indirectly?

FRANCES BENDER: From advisors rather than ministers.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And what did the advisors advise you?

FRANCES BENDER: That we needed to all work together and we shouldn't be breaking ranks I suppose, so it's not about breaking ranks and it's not about scoring points and it's not about c- it's not about commercial benefit, it's about doing what's right

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Frances Bender has told Four Corners Huon has confidentially briefed the government about its concerns regarding Macquarie Harbour on three separate occasions this year to no avail.

FRANCES BENDER: This is not the politically correct thing to say and this is not the poli- the corporate thing to say but it's the, it's me saying it and quite frankly we're just sick of it, I'm sick of not sleeping at night because I'm worried about it and I'm sick of people playing games, there's no need for it, we need to be honest, we need to cut back the number of fish and we can farm up there carefully.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: When it comes to Tassal's farming operations for this man there were consequences.

(To WARWICK HASTWELL: )What did Tassal do to you, do to your life?

WARWICK HASTWELL, DOVER BAY MUSSELS: Well essentially they …our business died and, um, it cost me my business and my marriage, um, yeah pretty much ruined us.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In 2009 Warwick Hastwell and his former wife took over a boutique mussel farm on the east coast of Tasmania called Dover Bay Mussels.

WARWICK HASTWELL: We used to boast we had the fastest growing mussels in Australia um, it was a profitable business.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Several years of successful farming followed. Today this is what remains of Dover Bay Mussels. An abandoned office, a disused yard.

WARWICK HASTWELL: That was some of the most stressful frustrating periods of my life. I remember one day driving back from Hobart and having to stop alongside the road and just burst into tears I was just so wound up. It's still just below the surface, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Warwick Hastwell's mussel farm was located 150 metres from Tassal's salmon pens.

In 2014 the mussels stopped growing. In 2015 photos show them suffering significant gill damage…smothered in thick orange slime.

Something in the water was destroying Warwick Hastwell's farm.

WARWICK HASTWELL: I realised that potentially the cause of our problems was coming from Tassal when Tassal clean their nets there's a big cloud of fragmented bi, you know, material that comes drifting down the water column and basically just goes straight through my farm which is basically ten metres deep, ah, of mussels that are ingesting everything that's in the water as part of their normal feeding.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: With his business in ruins Warwick Hastwell made a submission to the 2015 Senate Inquiry. Blaming Tassal for the destruction of his mussel farm. Tassal denied responsibility.

MARK RYAN: I know our science proved the fact that um we weren't responsible for any of his um misfortunes.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Despite its denial Tassal offered Warwick Hastwell a deal.

A lump sum for his marine leases. And his silence.

In exchange for the money, Warwick Hastwell agreed to never speak publicly about the matter again and to never speak disparagingly about Tassal.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In addition to buying your leases did they buy your silence?


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Why did you accept that?

WARWICK HASTWELL: Ah, as a husband and wife, um, business, ah, we were standing to lose a large amount of money and capital investment and we just couldn't afford to- to walk away from that much of a loss.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Warwick Hastwell accepted the deal but he was still listed to give evidence at the Senate Inquiry.

Prompting Tassal to write this email to Warwick Hastwell's lawyer:

We remind your clients of their obligations not to make disparaging statements whether in relation to the Senate Enquiry (sic) or to the media or otherwise.'

One day later Tassal wrote again attempting to withdraw the deal completely because it may be construed as contravening Senate Inquiry rules.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What did you decide to do?

WARWICK HASTWELL: To not appear at the Senate Inquiry, the cost would have been too great.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How does that make you feel?

WARWICK HASTWELL: Sick, disgusted… I would have loved to be in- financially in a position to say stuff it.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Does it feel good talking about it now?



WARWICK HASTWELL: Um, it's a burden I carry.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: On the day he was due to appear at the Senate Inquiry Warwick Hastwell was nowhere to be seen.

SPEAKER: For the information of the people present, we were to move to Mr Warwick Hastwell from Dover Bay Mussels. He is unable to be here this afternoon

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you believe that you were prevented or coerced from giving evidence at the enquiry?


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you have the material to back that up?


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In what form is that?

WARWICK HASTWELL: I have copies of emails and letters from withdrawing the offer because of it could be construed. I think they'd woken up to the fact that what they were doing was essentially illegal and they thought they better try and get out of it. But as I said, you know, we- we'd already accepted the deal, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: We put Warwick Hastwell's claims to Tassal's CEO Mark Ryan.

Did Tassal in any way deter Warwick Hastwell or advise Warwick Hastwell away from giving evidence at the senate enquiry?

MARK RYAN: Well there was a confidentiality deed um put in place Caro, so you know like he was limited to what he could um what he could say. So again if he wanted to front the Senate enquiry then as long as he didn't talk about confidential information as part of that deed the you know I can't stop people from doing things in life.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Warwick Hastwell has decided to break his silence defying the confidentiality agreement to speak to Four Corners.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Why are you speaking up now?

WARWICK HASTWELL: Stuff them, um I had a discussion with my ex wife and we basically went stuff them we- we've lost everything pretty much, what are they going to do what- what more are they going to take from us?

VIDEO: That's the beauty of Tassal

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In glossy corporate videos Tassal spruiks its sustainability credentials.

It's been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

VIDEO: ASC which stands for the aquaculture stewardship council was the gold standard to achieve for us as a salmon company

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Tassal has also partnered with the ASC's co founder The World Wildlife Fund Australia, WWF.

VIDEO: Tassal has come a long way working with WWF…it gives them the social license to operate in the marine environment

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Tassal is the only company in Australia able to use both the ASC and the WWF logos.

Proudly emblazoned on its packs of salmon.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Does it give you a market edge?

MARK RYAN: I, I think it has given us a- a market um edge in terms of you know, being able to again prove your s- sustainability credentials

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So is Tassal sustainable and transparent?

MARK RYAN: Yeah, I think and I believe that we- we are and I guess we're transparent in our um practices. Um we've got the um aquaculture stewardship council um certification across all our farm sites. We're the first company in- in salmon globally to- to have that. We've got the partnership with WWF um Australia, which is really important for us.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do people trust WWF, that logo, do you think that's what it engenders in the consumer?

DERMOT O'GORMAN: We have a- a high degree of trust in the Australian market as we do globally.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Dermot O'Gorman is the CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, Australia.

What does that assure consumers when it comes to that logo being on Tassal products?

DERMOT O'GORMAN: So the idea of linking the WF logo to ASC is to assure con- a- Australian consumers that the product they're buying is a responsibly sourced salmon. Clear and simple.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Four Corners has received a copy of Tassal's partnership agreement with WWF a contract signed by Dermot O'Gorman and Mark Ryan n May 2016.

It shows: Tassal pays WWF almost a quarter of a million dollars every year - for three years - plus bonus performance payments - to be able to use the panda logo.

We've also discovered, Tassal forks out another quarter of a millions dollars every year …to cover the costs of its ASC accreditation.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How can consumers have confidence in the use of that WWF logo and the ASC logo if in fact Tassal have paid for them, have bought them?

DERMOT O'GORMAN: They have contributed to our conservation work. If you're trying to imply that that in some way compromises the credibility of our brand, I have to beg to disagree. We …

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Well I'm not implying; I'm asking.

DERMOT O'GORMAN: Yeah, so we maintain the highest scientific standards in terms of how we go into partnership with comer- with companies and we have ASC, which is the gold standard in sustainable salmon farming, that we believe sets th- that standard both here in Tasmania and around the world.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Mark, if Tassal is transparent why haven't you published this fee schedule to WWF?

MARK RYAN: Well I'm not sure what the relevancy of um the fee schedule is. It's the first time anyone's bought something up on it um Caro, so if it is something of um particular interest to people, we have no problem doing that and if it if it made you happy I'd be more than happy to actually put that on the on the website.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In a pre-emptive move, one week before we were due to go to air,

Tassal lodged this 7-page letter on the Australian Stock Exchange website. In it, Tassal says it has now agreed to be fully transparent about all of these payments.

Huon's Frances Bender has her own story with WWF Australia approaching the organisation three times since 2013 to form a partnership.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Frances, how much was WWF asking for in money terms to enter a partnership with you,

FRANCES BENDER, HUON AQUACULTURE: It was a figure between three to $400,000 and

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Up to $400,000


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But there was a catch.

FRANCES BENDER DIRECTOR HUON ACQUACULTURE We could achieve a partnership, but we couldn't use their logo and we couldn't tell anybody that we had the partnership. It was highly unusual, but there was nothing we could do about it, so I directed my staff to walk away from that um partnership.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: We asked the World Wildlife Fund about its dealings with Huon.

Has WWF been approached or in discussions with Huon about Huon using the WWF logo?

DERMOT O'GORMAN: We have not talked to Huon about the use of the WWF logo on their products.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Why would the CEO of WWF say that?

DERMOT O'GORMAN: I don't really know, um whether he's not aware, um but I'm sure that he would be, there wouldn't be many companies approaching WWF Australia t- to investigate partnerships, if he's not aware, he should've been, so um it's disappointing

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: There's something else Tassal - and the rest of the industry - isn't reporting isn't required to tell consumer about the salmon its selling us.

There's a very strong smell in here. What am I smelling?

LEO NANKERVIS, MARKETING MANAGER SKRETTING AUSTRALIA: Like anything that you manufacture for consumption the raw material used for fish feed do have a smell associated with them.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Marketing manager Leo Nankervis is taking us on a tour of the country's biggest supplier of fish feed, Skretting.

We produce feed for the three biggest farm producers, Tassal, Huon and Petuna…

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The companies buy thousands of tonnes of these pellets every year.

But what… in them?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Ruminant protein. What's ruminant protein.

LEO NANKERVIS: Products may contain ruminant protein…that's a very interesting question I'm not aware of what ruminant protein may be in these feeds.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you think it's a good idea to be open and upfront and transparent about what's in feed?

LEO NANKERVIS: Absolutely. And that's why I'd like the opportunity to talk to you today.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It may surprise you to learn exactly what is in Skretting's fish feed.

A concoction of compressed chicken feathers, animal offcuts, lamb, beef, organs, blood, among other things.

And then, there's this:

LEO CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This is the pigment right here. This is astaxanthin

LEO NANKERVIS: Ah this is astaxanthin

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Ok so this is a chemical?

LEO NANKERVIS: It's a chemical well everything is a chemical I have to say we are just a bunch of chemicals really. It is identical to the chemical structure of the astaxanthin that the salmon would normally get from the crustaceans in the wild um but this is actually a synthetic source. Um so it's a synthesised natural identical chemical.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The synthetic astaxanthin being used is a closely guarded industry secret.

We've managed to get our hands on one of these: It looks like a colour chart for paints, something you'd pick up at a hardware store.

It's actually a SalmoFan. This is the range of pigments companies can choose to artificially colour the salmon's flesh…using astaxanthin.

Without this artificial additive…the salmon you're eating…would look very different.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What colour would the flesh be without astaxanthin

LEO NANKERVIS: It would be more or less indistinguishable from other white fleshed fish.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It would be white? Not a greyish colour?

LEO NANKERVIS: Well it's very open to interpretation what's a white and what's a greyish colour

MARC ZEMEL US ATTORNEY: If a consumer were to see a salmon fillet that was a pale grey or a white, chances are they wouldn't buy it.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In the US not disclosing the fact that farmed salmon is artificially coloured landed the three biggest supermarket chains in court…sued by consumers in a class action.

MARC ZEMEL, US ATTORNEY: People were upset, people were furious, they didn't know what they were eating, they were being deceived and that really drove us to bring the law suit.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Then did the supermarkets respond to the claim when it was filed?

MARC ZEMEL: Well when we filed the claim, within a week or two, the supermarkets committed to start labelling their salmon and it was a remarkable victory right after filing the lawsuit.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In America truth in labelling matters. Here in San Francisco consumers demand to know what they're eating so they can make a choice.

MARC ZEMEL: I would tell Australians to get educated and get informed about what they're actually consuming and buying you know, now that they know that it's farmed salmon, they should look into it

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Back in Tasmania concerns about the salmon farming industry are growing. Tassal is planning to expand into new waters on the east coast…

To install 28 giant salmon pens…here…in the pristine Okehampton Bay.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How would you characterise Tassal's proposal and its plans for Okehampton Bay?

ROWAN ARMITAGE, FORMER OKEHAMPTON BAY MARINE LEASE OWNER: A I suspect it's going to be shown to be environmental vandalism. It's, as I've been- said, the scale of what they're proposing to do there is scary

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Rowan Armitage used to own the Okehampton Bay water lease.

Pictured here 16 years ago he was planning to use it to farm salmon year round. But following detailed scientific studies…he determined it couldn't be done: the current was too low and in summer the water was too warm.

As water temperature goes up, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water goes down. If you don't have any oxygen, you don't have any fish.

Based on the science Rowan Armitage ruled out year-round salmon farming in Okehampton Bay.

A former industry man - he's now pleading for the regulator, the EPA, to listen.

ROWAN ARMITAGE: Well, I think the EPA has to, excuse the expression, grow some balls, and um take control of what's going on. Um they've got to man up a-and start putting some sensible controls in place um to save another Macquarie Harbour happening on the east coast.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This is the area at the heart of Tassal's controversial expansion plan… Okehampton Bay. Further south is the pristine Mercury Passage.

Both of the water leases you see here…are owned by a company called Spring Bay Seafoods.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Hi I'm Caro from Four Corners.


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Phil nice to meet you.

PHIL: Likewise, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Thank you for having us. So this is Spring Bay Seafoods?

PHIL LAMB: You've come in with all guns blazing by the looks of it (hold for laugh)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Phil Lamb is the managing director of Spring Bay Seafoods…one of Australia's most awarded mussel producers. But his farm has come to a standstill. A toxic algal bloom has wiped out all his mussels.

PHIL LAMB: Four months last year with closures and um this year it's where are we now, two and a half months, so year no income.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How are you coping?

PHIL LAMB: Oh managing, we'll get there we've got a few things in the winds, so which is what we're here to talk about I suppose.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Phil Lamb's company has recently subleased a large chunk of its Okehampton Bay farm to Tassal.

PHIL LAMB: Well I've got a group of locals here as well.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: um so they've come along to speak with Four Corners or?

PHIL LAMB: A Yeah well they they've come along to support us I suppose in what we're doing what Tassal wanting to do.

Hi I'll move on so. Okay so we've got a we've got a lot of people here.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The people who've decided to come and see us today are powerful figures in the local community: business owners, even Mayors.

Okay. And I take it everybody here in the room is pro Tassal's expansion into your region?

MAN: Yeah.

MAN: Yes.

WOMAN: Correct.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And why is that?

The locals are desperate for jobs. The youth unemployment rate here is well above the national average…almost 20% are out of work.

WOMAN: We're just crying out for help. Mm ah.

CARO MELDRUM -HANNA: Crying out for help?

WOMAN: Crying our for ah new industry in this area. Yeah. So it's just ah it has to happen.

WOMAN: We're not only getting new industry we're getting a world class industry, a world credited industry, and we've got an opportunity here to show the world what Tasmania could do or they actually are doing it now Tassal. Why wouldn't you want it?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But this is no ordinary get together.

Almost all of the people in this room had been put forward by Tassal to be interviewed by Four Corners.

Several days earlier we were leaked a series of confidential documents from inside Tassal.

In the first document, Tassal's plans for dealing with Four Corners - and controlling the message - are laid bare.

The bottom line is, the industry must work together, as Four Corners will try to divide and conquer.

It is important that the industry players find common ground and appear united.

It also revealed Tassal was tracking our movements. Our interviews and interactions with others were being recorded - without our knowledge - and privately shared with Tassal.

Then there's this: The industry must organise third party stakeholders provide support. Offering and neutralising action.

And I think some people believe what they want to believe and if Tassal said the sun will come up tomorrow they wouldn't believe it. So there's just that element of people who won't believe anything they say.

We were leaked a second document from inside Tassal: a Four Corners Strategy manual.

Spanning 50 pages it lays out how Tassal has contacted dozens of community member's business owner, Mayors even approached supposedly independent organisations.

The World Wildlife Fund, The CSIRO, The EPA, The Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet, State and federal politicians, to support and promote Tassal's expansion plan.

That plan hinges on using Phil Lamb's Okehampton Bay water lease.

PHIL LAMB: Tassal have done the homework. We've done our own homework. But Tassal are the experts. We've leased the water to them and they're confident um that it's suitable um.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The locals here might support Tassal's plans for Okehampton Bay.

But they're dead against the rumoured expansion into the Mercury Passage.

MAN: I'd be I'd be tied to the front of the boat stopping them. Ah it's too important to the local people, it's too important to the fishing in- the the local fisherman and the lo- and the tourist industry, and they have no intention at all of going there anyway I'm told.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Spring Bay Seafoods' Phil Lamb assures everyone there's no truth to the rumours.

And now in front of the this group of locals and business owners you can say to them no that rumour is not true?

PHIL LAMB: Absolutely I think they all know that um yeah um it's, it's another one of these myths that's floating around.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: After the meeting wrapped up we asked Phil Lamb again about Tassal's rumoured intentions to farm salmon in his Mercury Passage lease, known as lease 164.

PHIL LAMB: On the record there is no option over Lease 164 in- in Mercury Passage.

CARO MELDRUM- HANNA: Have there been any previous agreements that you have been a party to about Tassal fish farming in 164?

PHIL LAMB: There- there's no agreement, previous or existing for farming um, in- i- farming salmon in Lease 164. Absolutely not.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So there's never been any agreement, past, present, future, to farm salmon in Mercury Passage.

MARK RYAN: No, that's true, Caro, and we had the discussions as we said early days to determine whether we would want to and we determined very early that no, we wouldn't and there's no agreements in place to farm um salmon there.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Four Corners has obtained this document titled Heads of Agreement.

It details discussions about the possibility of commercial Atlantic Salmon farming' in the Mercury Passage.

Signed in June 2014 by Phil Lamb and Tassal's CEO Mark Ryan.

MARK RYAN: Yes, we did look at Mercury Passage early days to determine its sustainability but we determined on a, on a social license a community perspective that no, that's not something that we want to want to entertain so quickly we didn't…

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: When did you rule it out?

MARK RYAN: Ah we probably ruled it out about two years a- ago when we actually had a look at it

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But this second document obtained by Four Corners reveals the opportunity remains open.

A draft contract dated 2016 but unsigned it reads: 'Should Tassal wish to expand in the Mercury Passage, Spring Bay Seafoods will facilitate this expansion'

CARO MELDRUM- HANNA: Mercury Passage to farm salmon in the future?

MARK RYAN: Yeah, I can put that on record that we have no plans to farm salmon in Mercury um Passage where that existing lease is at the moment, nor outside of that lease

CARO MELDRUM -HANNA The big business of salmon farming is now at a crossroads. The community and the industry is divided.

One company leader is pleading for change before it's too late.

FRANCES BENDER: We have an amazingly great industry, it's come from nothing, sorry, it's come from not existing, to getting to a point now where we're the largest agribusiness in this state and we employ so many fantastic people in areas where there's no work and we wanna risk that? I just don't understand it.

SARAH FERGUSON: No one from the Tasmanian Government or the state regulator would be interviewed for this program.

You can find a series of statements from government, industry, and others on our website.

Next week, a heart stopping journey through the badlands of Afghanistan. See you then.



Background Information




Statement from Jeremy Rockliff, Minister for Primary Industries and Water / Deputy Premier [PDF]

Response to additional questions from Jeremy Rockliff, Minister for Primary Industries and Water / Deputy Premier [PDF]

Response from Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) [PDF]

Response from Wes Ford, Director of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) [PDF]


Letter to Four Corners from Tassal [PDF] | 20 Oct 2016

Letter to Four Corners from Tassal [PDF]| 28 Oct 2016

Tassal Information Statement | 31 Oct 2016

World Wildlife Fund

Further Information for Four Corners WWF [PDF] | 12 Oct 2016

Further Information for Four Corners 2 WWF [PDF] | 27 Oct 2016

Further Information for Four Corners 3 WWF [PDF] | 28 Oct 2016

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Response from Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) [PDF]


Identifying the nature, extent and duration of critical production periods for Atlantic salmon in Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania, during summer | Fisheries Research & Development Corporation | June 2016 -

Macquarie Harbour environmental and fish health monitoring review | Cawthron Institute | August 2015 [PDF] -

Macquarie Harbour Environmental and Fish Health Monitoring Review - Cawthron Report, DPIPWE's Response to the Cawthron Report and Status of Macquarie Harbour reports | Tasmania Government -

Changes to Salmon Industry Regulation | Tasmania Government -

Salmon Industry Changes FAQs | Tasmania Government -


Salmon farmer says Tasmanian Government ignored warning on overstocking danger in Macquarie Harbour | ABC News Online | 31 Oct 2016 -

Okehampton Bay salmon farm proposal receives in-principle council backing | ABC News Online | 28 Sep 2016 -

Salmon farms look for new pastures to allow sustainable growth | ABC News Online | 28 Sep 2016 -

Okehampton Bay 'no place for fin-fish farming', says original lease owner | ABC News Online | 6 Sep 2016 -

Environmentalists ready to fight increase in salmon farming in Macquarie Harbour | ABC News Online | 29 Apr 2016 -

Huon Aquaculture faces $260k bill for environmental study after exceeding nitrogen levels | ABC News Online | 16 Dec 2015 -

Abalone divers and green groups say expansion of booming salmon farming industry should be halted | ABC News Online | 16 Jul 2015 -

Tasmanian Government defends salmon industry while backflipping on marine farm review panel | ABC News Online | 25 Mar 2015 -

Questions over mass fish kill after wild west coast weather | ABC News Online | 22 May 2015 -

Petuna says up to 85,000 fish killed in Tasmanian West Coast storm event a 'one-off' | ABC Tasmania Country Hour | 22 May 2015 -

Fish feed breakthrough lifts salmon profits | ABC Tasmania Country Hour | 19 Feb 2014 -

How green and clean is Tasmanian salmon? | 7.30 Report | 9 Dec 2009 -

First posted October 31, 2016 15:26:00