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Community group urges health sector to stop promoting farmed salmon

A community group campaigning against the health and environmental impacts of feedlot salmon farming in lutruwita/Tasmania has urged health organisations and health professionals to stop promoting farmed salmon.

Jess Coughlan, campaigner for Neighbours of Fish Farming (NOFF), has called for the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and heart and cancer bodies to make a clear distinction between wild and farmed salmon when making dietary recommendations, describing the “huge costs” from feedlot salmon farming to the environment and health and wellbeing of communities.

During a week of posting from Croakey’s rotated X/Twitter account @WePublicHealth, Coughlan said the marketing of farmed Tasmanian salmon as a health food is based upon falsehoods.

Watch this video (featured below) for a summary of her calls to action to the health sector.

The NOFF website also has some powerful films, featuring palawa communities raising concerns about the impact of salmon farming on Country, as well as films with actors Essie Davis and Miriam Margolyes. The group is running several campaigns, targeting communities, supermarkets, chefs and the hospitality sector.

NOFF’s concerns come amid global and national efforts to encourage environmental sustainability to be incorporated into dietary guidelines.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently released a food systems-based dietary guidelines methodology “to enable governments to outline what constitutes a healthy diet from sustainable food systems, align food-related policies and programmes and support the population to adopt healthier and more sustainable dietary patterns and practices that favour, among other outcomes, environmental sustainability and socio-economic equity”.

Meanwhile, the Australian Dietary Guidelines are currently under revision, with an update due for release in 2026, and expected to include advice on the strength and quality of evidence about sustainability and diet, defined as “accessible, affordable and equitable diets with low environmental impacts”.

In a reminder of the power of political and commercial determinants in shaping food systems, Federal National Party Leader and Shadow Agriculture Minister David Littleproud issued a statement this week criticising the plans. He urged the National Health and Medical Research Council “to stick to their knitting”, saying that dietary guidelines should be about food, “not elitist agendas trying to control people”. His comments met a swift response from some health experts, with one suggesting the MP needed “to get a better health advisor”.

The concerns raised by NOFF are also timely ahead of the 23 March state election. The political power of the salmon farming industry could be seen in recent media photos featuring Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Tassal headquarters.

Tassal is owned by Cooke Inc of Canada, while another major salmon farming company, Huon Aquaculture, is a subsidiary of Brazilian company, JBS S.A., “the world’s largest meat processing enterprise”.  JBS was in the news this week over concerns about beef production and deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado savannah, which the BBC reports hosts five percent of the world’s species, including more than 6,000 types of tree.

Croakey readers may also be interested in this recent report, Blue Empire, on the global health impacts of salmon farming in Norway, prepared by an environmental and food group in the UK and Netherlands, Feedback. It argues that Norway has created “a new type of food colonialism which fuels hunger and unemployment in regions such as West Africa” by extracting millions of tonnes of wild fish each year, to produce food for farmed salmon in Norway.

“The extraction of precious fish from West Africa by corporations headquartered in the Global North for the benefit of mainly high-income consumers in Europe, North America and Asia has far-reaching consequences in terms of further entrenching global inequity and food insecurity,” says the report.

Key issues of concern

While at @WePublicHealth, Jess Coughlan raised concerns about the impact of industrial farming practices upon the composition of salmon and related health impacts, the use of antibiotics in salmon farming, and the environmental impacts, including upon waterways.

“Industry markets farmed salmon as health-food or a super-food, but there is growing evidence to show it isn’t,” she said. “Worryingly, super-food is not a regulated term with no guarantee of goodness.”

Coughlan urged health professionals to support calls for reduced use of antibiotics in farmed fish and animals (see more details in this 2023 story by Tasmanian journalist Bob Burton).

She encourages people spend 23 minutes watching Check out Paradise Lost by Justin Kurzel and Connor Castles-Lynch, if you haven’t yet read TOXIC by Richard Flanagan.

Environmental and social impacts

Coughlan also described the environmental and social impacts of the farms’ plastic infrastructure, industrial light, noise and physical pollution, in diminishing the health of humans and wildlife.

“The farmed Atlantic salmon industry operates in waterways near residential areas,” she said. “Active leases operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Well before the industry, people moved to these waterside regions for retirement, and to raise young families.”

In 2022 the findings and recommendations of the Parliamentary Fin Fish Inquiry were published after a lengthy three-year process and consultation examining the Tasmania salmon industry.

Recommendation 3 is clear, said Coughlan: “To develop a plan, in consultation with industry, scientific and community stakeholders, to reduce inshore fin fish farming sites, with priority given to ceasing operations in sensitive, sheltered and biodiverse areas.”

This recommendation is being ignored by industry and government, she said. “Community stakeholders are left out in the cold with no reduction in inshore fin fish farming sites, and sensitive, sheltered and biodiverse areas still being exploited.”

Coughlan described NOFF’s work globally. For example, she said communities in Iceland and Canada are fighting to have Atlantic salmon farming removed from their waterways.

Extinction threat

Coughlan also highlighted the impact of salmon farms upon the endangered Maugean skate fish in Macquarie Harbour, which has been the subject of intense environmental, media and political attention (see links below).

She described the history: in 2012 a massive industry expansion was approved in Macquarie Harbour by Federal Environment Minister Tony Bourke, and approved as a “non controlled action” under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, as the threat to the Maugean skate was not recognised at that time.

The salmon industry scaled up, Macquarie Harbour’s capacity to cope with the increased biomass became clear. A near total ecological collapse became apparent with dramatic decrease in oxygen levels, 1.3 million salmon died, and skate population plummeted.

Further reading

Australian Government Conservation Advice for Zearaja maugeana (Maugean skate). In effect under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, from 6 September 2023. The Maugean skate is included in the 2023 Finalised Priority Assessment List (FPAL) with a due date for the listing assessment of 30 October 2024. This updated Conservation Advice is in place while the listing assessment is completed.

ABC (January 2024): Endangered Maugean skate die in captive breeding program after being removed from Macquarie Harbour

Tasmanian Inquirer (October 2023): Hill Street Grocer under pressure over Macquarie Harbour fish farm threat to endangered Maugean skate

The Guardian (July 2023): Global calls to revoke ‘misleading’ sustainable farming certification for salmon in Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour

The Guardian (May 2023): Scientists warn Maugean skate, Tasmania’s ‘thylacine of the sea’, one extreme weather event from extinction

ABC (May 2023): Opponents, defenders of Tasmania’s salmon industry as entrenched as ever as fish farming continues to grow

The industry association Salmon Tasmania stresses the economic benefits of a $1 billion industry that “continues to be one of Tasmania’s great success stories of the past 30 years”.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania website highlights the economic value of the Tasmanian salmon industry, supplying over 90 per cent of Australian Atlantic salmon production.​​​​ It says: “The Tasmanian Government works to support the development of a modern salmon industry that meets the long-term needs of Tasmanian operators and the local community. The modern Tasmanian salmon aquaculture industry is highly innovative, with a range of regulatory and operational measures bringing significant enhancements to the sector across sustainability, biosecurity and productivity….Tasmania’s salmon industry has grown to become the single biggest primary sector in the state, which requires robust planning and regulation for sustainable long-term development.”


• Stay tuned for a @WePublicHealth summary on related topics, from the recent #FoodGovernance2024 conference. If you are interested in guesting at @WePublicHealth this year, to cover public health topics, please contact @MelissaSweetDr.

 

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