Most of us have the very tasty idea of the perfect pink or orange salmon, sustainably harvested in some of the world’s purest waters as the ultimate health food. (Assuming you aren't vegan of course.)
Richard Flanagan's latest book TOXIC hits shelves across Australia today and it roundly disputes just how tasty that salmon really is - for individuals, oceans or communities. I read Flanagan's book Death of a River Guide years ago and the book was so well written, in such graphic detail, that it still haunts me to this day.
'TOXIC' HAS CLEARLY BEEN WRITTEN BY THE SAME AUTHOR AS DEATH OF A RIVER GUIDE AND IT IS JUST AS HARROWING. EVEN MORE SO - FIRSTLY BECAUSE IT HAS MANY MORE TWISTS AND TURNS IN THE NARRATIVE AND SECONDLY BECAUSE IF THIS BOOK IS FRIGHTENINGLY, SICKENINGLY TRUE, THEN THE IMAGE WE ALL HAVE OF TASMANIAN SALMON IS THE FICTION. THE ULTIMATE TWIST.
In the book, TOXIC, Flanagan exposes some dirty and very disturbing practices of big salmon farmers in Tasmania, from what very much appears to be the serious bullying of farmers and scientists; the use of dubious and potentially carcinogenic ingredients in salmon feed and some pretty grotty farming practices - all leading to industrial scale impacts on our oceans, rivers and coastal communities. All the while, if the hundreds of allegations and implications are true, authorities are at the very least, looking the other way.
And let's not miss the pink/orange dye. I always thought coloured salmon was an urban myth, but it turns out that most farmed salmon isn't pink at all. It's grey, but dyed pink/orange*.
Flanagan told the ABC yesterday that he originally thought he would write something about this, just a short article, after he started witnessing the slow destruction of the environment near his Bruny Island shack. He had watched the water dying, the fish started vanishing, slime and algae starting to appear so he started to investigate.
"I STARTED TALKING TO SCIENTISTS, TO PEOPLE IN OTHER COMMUNITIES AND I DISCOVERED ONE STORY OF HORROR AFTER ANOTHER, AFTER ANOTHER.
I REALISED THAT TASMANIAN ATLANTIC SALMON IS JUST ONE BIG LIE. IT'S NOT CLEAN, IT'S NOT GREEN AND IT'S NOT EVEN HEALTHY."
It's hard to capture this book and do it justice as it really does have more twists and turns than the most complex detective novel. So here are a few paragraphs from Richard Flanagan's essay in The Monthly. Whether you buy the book or not, reading this essay will give you a clear understanding of both what is going on and how we got to where we are today.
Christine Coughanowr is a gently spoken woman of large achievement. An estuarine scientist, she started and led for twenty years a remarkable program to clean up pollution and restore marine life in Hobart’s magnificent Derwent Estuary. Known as the Derwent Estuary Program (DEP), it secured support from all levels of government and private industry to measure and improve the health of the Derwent’s lower reaches. Over two decades, industry and councils, along with the state and federal governments, significantly reduced the pollution emptying into the Derwent. It was a successful and popular program that continues to enjoy considerable community support. But now Coughanowr fears that much that was achieved over the last two decades could be lost to the salmon corporations’ greed.
Coughanowr is worried. She talks of Hobart’s drinking water also now being at risk from the pollution from salmon hatcheries, where the salmon are bred and raised to smolt (juvenile) stage. The older hatcheries – which is most of them – disperse their nutrient-rich effluent straight back into the river from which they draw their freshwater. Many of these hatcheries are situated on the upper reaches of the Derwent and Huon river systems, both sources of drinking water, the Derwent providing the majority of Hobart’s drinking water. Also present may be antibiotics and chemicals such as formaldehyde.
Another scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, laments to me how rather than managing Hobart’s drinking water for public risk, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) – Tasmania’s environmental regulator – gives the appearance of existing only to enable the expansion of the salmon industry. Rather than improving hatchery standards to an acceptable level, it sanctions more and larger hatcheries on Hobart’s water catchment. Basic measures such as drum filters do not address the vast amount of dissolved nutrients – ammonia, nitrate, phosphorus – which hatchery fish release through their gills, along with decayed faeces and food, into the source of drinking water for half Tasmania’s population.
Ammonia and nitrite are directly toxic to fish and invertebrate life in rivers and lakes. But that is not all, nor is it the greatest risk to the downstream environment.
Tasmanian rivers and lakes are nitrogen and phosphorus limited. Once these elements are introduced in quantity, algal growth can rapidly reach bloom proportions. If the nutrient load is high, pristine lakes and rivers can be quickly transformed from glorious clear waterways into turbid green algal-dominated environments.
Coughanowr explains that in 2015, following the opening by Huon Aquaculture of a large smolt hatchery below Meadowbank dam on the Derwent River, green algal blooms began appearing in the river. So extreme were these blooms that they threatened internationally significant seagrass beds and wetlands around Granton, an area sometimes described as the kidneys of the Derwent. At the same time, there was a public outcry about the bad taste and bad smell of Hobart’s drinking water – water locals normally hail as the best-tasting in Australia. But now the water often stank and tasted awful. The bad taste and odour came from the blue-green algal blooms, which have occurred most summers since.
There is a strong likelihood that the algal blooms were caused by excess nitrogen flowing into Hobart’s water catchment. Coughanowr says that TasWater’s own research came to the same conclusion.
.. and on it goes.
From what we have seen, nothing much has yet been said about the actual claims in the book so far. According to the ABC, the Tasmanian Salmon Growers Association have sought to point out that Flanagan is 'primarily celebrated for his works of fiction' and that they are 'reading the book through a science based lens'. And this:
"The TSGA welcomes robust discussion — our industry is always striving to do better for the environment and our communities, and feedback is an important part of that — but debate must take in all sides and consider science-based evidence."
The best way to understand the previous comments, read this excellent advice from Cutting Edge PR on managing tough questions, then re-read the response above. I can completely attest to the validity of this strategy, which of course works in any situation - with good or evil intent, as both parties achieve their objective just the same. It's also why transparency is increasingly important, but that is a whole other story.
In all fairness to the Tasmanian salmon industry, let's see how things play out in the coming days. Unlike Seaspiracy, that was open to attack on several flanks - although I haven't seen many words debunking the comments around fisheries - this book is about one specific industry in one specific place. As such, the opportunity to address each and every issue is easily achieved.
Let's see how that works out.
The launch of this work is part of a major initiative, supported by Environment Tasmania, to get the facts about the harm big salmon does to the Australian public and salmon eaters.
Environment Tasmania are asking citizens to sign their petition to supermarkets. The petition goes to the supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths and asks them to stop selling products from salmon companies that do not promise to act immediately to improve their practices. Around 15,000 people have already signed the petition, but to get the attention of the big supermarkets, they will need to get signatures up to more like 60,000..
Apart from staying informed as this story unfolds, there are 3 immediate and easy options that will help both fix this problem and protect you.
Farm-raised salmon is naturally grey; the pink colour is added. Wild salmon is naturally pink due to their diet which includes astaxanthin, a reddish-orange compound found in krill and prawns.