The Salmon Farm Monitor
An rud bhios na do bhròin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations


Don Down Under: Letter from Australia/New Zealand

After a gruelling two-month tour around New Zealand and Australia that has taken in public meetings in Whangerai, Mangonui, Auckland, Helensville, Nelson, Kaiaua, Brisbane and Adelaide, TV and Radio interviews in Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne, Adelaide and Port Lincoln as well as lectures at Otago University, the University of Waikato and Flinders University I am all fished out. Before I fly back to the UK next week however please find an up-date of my last month ‘Down Under’. A more detailed report on sea cage fish farming in Australia and New Zealand will be published in the New Year (watch this space for specific details). Available now are details of the conference held in Brisbane in August on “The Future of Mariculture in Australia’s Marine Environment” – this includes my paper ‘Closing the Net’.

Theft of the seaside

Perhaps the highlight and certainly the most culturally enlightening part of my three-week stay in New Zealand were a series of meetings with Maoris (iwi). I was honoured to be invited to address the Ngati Whatua, Ngatiwai, Ngapui, Te Raroa/Ngati Kahu as well as representatives of all Northland’s iwi. In Kaiaua the Ngati Paoa/Whanuanga gave me a Maori welcoming reception (powhiri) and traditional greeting where you touch noses and share each other’s breath (hongi).

Natives are growing restless at the New Zealand Government’s plan to sell off the seaside. Twenty years ago in the UK a book called “Theft of the Countryside” written by Dr Marion Shoard detailed how the British countryside was being privatised and partitioned off by modern intensive agriculture. Now that mariculture is on the march we are in real danger of repeating the same mistakes on land in the sea.

According to Gloria Timoti of the Ngati Whatu: “Those who claim to have authority over our resources think little of using these great assets – our waterways – as a dumping place for all sorts of wastes”. In a powerful address to a mini-conference on aquaculture held by Rodney District Council (1st October) she warned: “We pillage, we plunder and we pollute with little thought for tomorrow when we ought to be protecting and nurturing and unless we change our ways we are going to pay for our foolishness”. Wise words indeed.

Protect Peach Cove

The ‘Protect Peach Cove’ group in Whangarei Heads on North Island are keeping their fish fingers crossed that plans to expand kingfish farming in Northland have been shelved for good. Earlier this year Haku Tamare withdrew their application after a backlash from locals. A former fisheries scientist from the Ministry of Fisheries, Lew Ritchie, said the planned farm was “simply in the wrong place”. “This area at the gateway to Northland is a stupendously stunning area. The biodiversity is amazing and should not be damaged by industrial and commercial intrusion”, Mr Ritchie told the Northern Advocate.

The Northern Advocate (4th October) reported my visit to Peach Cove under the headline ‘Scientist issues finfish farming warning’. “Northland could lose its clean, green image if it allows finfish to be farmed in cages in the region’s coastline, a British marine scientist warns. Don Staniford was in the region this week to talk about his concerns over farming fish in cages. He visited local authorities and spoke at a public meeting on the issue on Thursday night attended by more than 100 people. Mr Staniford said he wanted to raise public awareness of aquaculture issues and future choices for aquaculture and fish farming in Northland and New Zealand” wrote Mike Dinsdale.

Sailing out to the proposed site I saw for myself how pristine and peaceful Peach Cove is. ‘Protect Peach Cove’ are fighting to keep it that way. Find out more about their excellent campaign to stop kingfish farming in Peach Cove at their web-site.

Kingfish are coming to North Island

Protect Peach Cove may have won the first battle against sea cage fish farming in Northland but the pressure is building to expand kingfish farming across North Island (which is too warm for salmon farming). Moana Pacific (the company behind the original application for Peach Cove) has recently lodged “expressions of interest” with Auckland Regional Council for half a dozen kingfish farms (totalling ca. 40 cages) off Ponui Island, Kawau Island and Manukau Harbour in the Waiuku Channel. When I visited to view the plans, Alan Moore of Auckland Regional Council told me that “the expansion of kingfish farming is inevitable”. Certainly, if Enterprise Northland (and NIWA – see below) have their way the whole of Northland will be littered with kingfish cages before you can say “show me the money”.

In September, the first land-based kingfish farm in New Zealand was granted approval by the Northland Regional Council. The Parengarenga Corporation at Te Kao in the Far North plan to produce 600 tonnes of farmed kingfish each year at a site near the Parengarenga Harbour. Now Dr Eric Stephens of Enterprise Northland wants 75 hectares of ocean waters devoted to kingfish farming and sees the salmon farming industry in South Island (which is too cold for kingfish farming) as a model to follow. “Anyone doubting the ability of finfish aquaculture to produce solid returns from relatively little water space should look at New Zealand King Salmon’s four Marlborough Sounds-based sea cage salmon farms which cover a surface area of about 7.5 hectares,” he told the Northern Advocate. Since King Salmon already have huge predator, waste and feed problems, a kingfish farming industry ten times that size is surely a recipe for ruin.

NIWA say “fish off”

An extraordinary incident occurred when I visited (3rd October) the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research’s (NIWA) Bream Bay Aquaculture Park. Bream Bay is the site from where NIWA dumped over 7,000 farmed kingfish in March after the Peach Cove farm went belly up. Accompanied by Shona Scott of Protect Peach Cove we were met at the security gates by Dr Simon Hooker for a pre-arranged appointment and ushered into a private conference room. What happened next can only be described as Kafkaesque and sadly symptomatic of the New Zealand Government’s promotion of cage aquaculture and protection of the industry from public scrutiny.

Dr Hooker, flanked by two other NIWA officials, opened the ‘discussion’ to inform us that instead of answering our questions and showing us around the kingfish hatchery as politely requested several months previously we were both required to leave the premises immediately. Before escorting us out of the $2.5 million publicly-funded facility, however, Dr Hooker told us why he was telling us to “fish off”. Reading from what appeared to be a pre-prepared script (and speaking into a hidden tape-recorder), he explained that because I had dared to present public information obtained from NIWA at the previous evening’s public meeting (where both NIWA and Enterprise Northland refused to speak) the visit was now cancelled.

Before being bundled out of the building, I reiterated several outstanding and still unanswered questions; namely: Did the deliberately released kingfish carry any diseases or parasites? Did NIWA have Government authorisation? Are the “disease treatment controls” that NIWA has developed for use on farmed kingfish, referred to on NIWA’s web-site, toxic chemicals? Nearly a month later I am still waiting for answers to these questions and a copy of the covertly recorded tape of the two-minute meeting. What have NIWA got to hide?

NIWA prostitutes itself

NIWA’s vested and conflict of interest in the promotion of sea cage aquaculture is all too clear. As Dr George Coulter of Protect Peach Cove writes in a background briefing on NIWA prepared for my all too fleeting visit: “The evident alignment of NIWA with the big battalions (industry, Enterprise Northland, Regional Council) is a pity. While it is obvious that research needs money to support it, there is surely also a case for objective science in the public good. Since NIWA is the main research agency for the aquatic environment in New Zealand, a balanced use of its capacities is desirable. However, the organisation appears committed, as witness investment in the Bream Bay laboratories and dependence for support on the above mentioned entities, to business expansion. A wider approach, balancing development with effects on the environment and other users (who unfortunately have less financial and institutional clout), would give the public more confidence in NIWA’s recommendations”.

Dr Coulter’s opinion is worth more than most – he is a both a respected international scientist and a former employee of NIWA before they jumped into bed with the ‘big battalions’ of business: “The Peach Cove experience in 2002-3 has been revealing. The aquaculture industry (Moana Pacific Ltd) had for several years been involved in supporting NIWA work in the rearing of early life-history stages (fingerlings) of kingfish and snapper. A proposal to install a commercial fish farm at Peach Cove was submitted (squeezed in just before the aquaculture moratorium in late 2001 with miniscule public notice). At a Consent Hearing before a Regional Council-appointed tribunal in July 2002, the Peach Cove action group was able to show convincingly that the farm proposal was of poor standard (it would not have been acceptable in any ‘Western’ country); moreover, the site proposed was shown as one of the most environmentally sensitive places on the NZ coastline…..The role of NIWA in this story is disappointing”.

No wonder then that NIWA are not prepared to engage in a public debate and are reluctant to show the general public around their publicly-funded facility. If anyone wants two-minute tape-recorded site visits of Bream Bay Aquaculture Park please contact NIWA’s Dr Simon Hooker (s.hooker@niwa.co.nz).

“Salmon farmers are stupid”

Thus ended my first (and last if salmon farmers have their way) appearance on New Zealand Breakfast TV (7th October). Sitting on the sofa with NZTV’s Breakfast host Mike Hoskins the live interview on New Zealand’s premier TV station went swimmingly. First he asked whether farmed salmon were coloured artificially and asked me about Hoffman La-Roche’s ‘SalmoFan’ that farmers use to pick the colour of their salmon (market research has shown that Swiss consumers prefer SalmoFan shade 32 whilst the French prefer their farmed salmon somewhat paler at 28 on the Roche scale). Then he asked me why, if we didn’t farm carnivores on land, we were farming carnivorous fish such as salmon in the sea.

“Are salmon farmers stupid?”, he asked leadingly. Given all the evidence it is difficult to disagree. “Yes – it’s biological nonsense to be farming fish at the top of the food web”, I replied. “Salmon farmers are stupid if they think the public are going to continue to buy cheap and nasty artificially coloured and fatty farmed salmon. New Zealand King Salmon have already conducted trials of genetically engineered salmon and I discovered last week that they are even feeding their farmed salmon on imported feather feed from Chile. Farmed salmon is often called ‘chicken of the sea’ – never has the phrase seemed more apt”. You could almost hear salmon farmers choking on their smoked salmon blinis.

Over in Australia (26th October), ABC’s ’60 Minutes’ TV show also featured a news story on AquaBounty’s GE salmon. In May, the Canadian company AquaBounty visited Australia to speak at a conference on genetic engineering and are busy hawking their wares. In view of the fact that the Australian Government’s CSIRO research laboratory is already conducting experiments on GE oysters and zebrafish it would appear that Australia are stupid enough to ape New Zealand and promote the development of GE salmon.

Kingfish dead in the water

Unable to compete with the Japanese market (Japan farms over 150,000 tonnes of kingfish and related species), Australian kingfish farmers (who produce only ca. 2,000 tonnes) are trying to dump their unwanted goods on the domestic market. However, despite a million-dollar Government-sponsored marketing initiative to improve its image it appears that the Australian public is giving farmed kingfish a wide berth. Processors report that there simply isn’t a market for farmed kingfish with consumers deterred by reports of diseases, escapes, parasites and plain bad taste. The Australian authorities are therefore trying to introduce farmed kingfish via the backdoor.

During a visit to Adelaide’s fish market I saw at first hand how Australia is in the Dark Ages when it comes to fish labelling. Unlike in Europe where it is law to label whether the fish is ‘farmed’ or ‘wild’ or in the United States where it is law to label artificial colourings, Australia seems content to keep consumers in the dark. Much to the genuine surprise of other shoppers the staff admitted that all the barramundi, salmon, trout and kingfish on sale were from factory farms. When I asked whether the farmed fish had been fed with any artificial colourings or chemicals the fishmonger simply did not know. Unfortunately the general public did not even know whether the fish on sale were farmed let alone what chemicals they contained. For more information, see the ‘Farmed and Dangerous’ campaign.

“You’re a bunch of wankers”

These were the blunt but carefully considered words from Whyalla resident Roma Kiticos at a recent public meeting. The targets of her ire were the Government civil servants Ian Nightingdale, Stephen Madigan and Colin Johnston who stubbornly maintain (despite evidence to the contrary) that there are no real problems with kingfish farming in the Spencer Gulf. The South Australian Government, like their Canadian, New Zealand and Scottish counterparts, have systematically promoted sea cage fish farming and have protected the industry from public scrutiny. This is despite the fact that according to official Government figures since June 2001 over 30,000 kingfish have escaped from their cages in South Australia alone (from less than a dozen farms). Local fishermen estimate the real figure to be over 100,000 and believe disease problems are now out of control.

When I visited (24th October), residents living near the kingfish farms in Fitzgerald Bay told me that there are huge problems with disease, parasites, escapes and mass mortalities. When dead kingfish from the local farm were dumped in her domestic waste bins Roma took photographs to prove her point that kingfish farming was dead in the water. Local Government officials have tried to stop Roma from blowing the whistle and prevented her from raising legitimate issues of public concern. Roma calls the kingfish cages littering the coast “burning rings of fire” and her brave actions has aroused the interest of ABC News who have featured her photographs of dead kingfish. The camera never lies – the truth will out.

“I fought Great White”

Photographs of dead Great White sharks are the last thing tuna farmers in Port Lincoln want scaring off tourists, fishermen and divers. But that’s exactly what greeted them in a headline news story - “I fought Great White” - in The Sunday Mail (26th October). “The shark had got in by biting its way through the bottom of the net after detecting a couple of dead fish,” explained tuna diver Dean Stefanek. “There was just no way we could get it out, so the decision to kill it was made and some blokes shot it – but no way would it die. It started to get messy and I jumped into the water and swam outside the net so I could shoot it with a powerhead (spear fitted with a shotgun cartridge)”.

Pictured like a African bounty hunter next to the six metre shark “he was forced to wrestle and kill” Mr Stefanek continues: “The shark saw me and went beserk. I tried to kill it quickly and fired at its head, which only stunned it. I fired eight more times and it kept coming back and thrashing. I think it was then that I started to get a bit scared”. Call me a scaredy cat Dean if you like but I would have been scared off long before then!

In Scotland we get seals predating salmon farmers – Great White sharks and crocodiles pose a much more dangerous threat altogether. According to Peter Dennis of Triple Bay Charters who took me and other tourists out to tuna and kingfish farms in Boston Bay, locals in Port Lincoln no longer allow their children to swim or surf. “The problem of sharks is greater at tuna harvest time,” explained Peter. “That’s when you get blood and guts in the water”.

In Adelaide (29th October) tuna and kingfish farmers met in to discuss the growing problem of predators in a workshop on “Shark and Fish Farm Interactions”. Unfortunately, the public was barred from attending – it seems it is far easier for a shark to get into a tuna cage than it is for the public to get into a Government meeting on sharks. On a visit to the Stehr Group’s Arno Bay facility (23rd October), general manager Stephen Bedford-Clark told me that a dozen bronze whaler sharks (yes, twelve!) were found in a single (yes, one) kingfish cage. At least tuna diver Mr Stefanek only had one shark to deal with even if it was a monster: “No one there had ever seen a shark so big and there were a few stunned and amazed looks. The great pity was it had to be killed – particularly as it was wounded. I know they are becoming extinct. But there is only one of me and it could have made me extinct very quickly”. Salmon farmers, it seems, don’t have a monopoly on stupidity.

Cowboy country

Speaking of stupidity it was perhaps not the most sensible idea to stride into Port Lincoln (tuna farming capital of the world) and call tuna farmers ‘cowboys’ live on radio. Especially not since I was due to stay in town for three days and was scheduled to visit the Tuna Boat Owners Association the next day! Stealing a line from Juan Carl Cardenas of Ecoceanos in Chile, I accused the South Australian Government of a frontier approach to aquaculture development and described Port Lincoln as a “Wild West without a sheriff”. For good measure I said that tuna farmers in Port Lincoln had “made millions at the expense of the local community, treated the marine environment with contempt and ought to pay for the pollution they cause”.

Well, the difference between bravery and stupidity is measured only by success I guess and judging by how successful my visit was the series of ABC radio broadcasts cannot have been a bad thing – you can listen on-line to one ABC interview featuring myself and Brian Jeffries from the Tuna Boat Owners Association. Unfortunately, when ABC lined up a live debate between myself and Brian Jeffries his mobile phone reception mysteriously disappeared. Brian was much more receptive in the pub later that evening and over dinner in the Tasman Hotel when he advised me not to eat the farmed tuna as it was “the reject stuff Japan didn’t want”. He was even more forthcoming when he came to hear me speak at Adelaide Town Hall (27th October) and gave me a pile of photocopies and information about contaminants such as mercury, PCBs and dioxins in farmed tuna…..from the Mediterranean!

The Port Lincoln Times (7th October) had kindly previewed my visitand featured my visit once again in a story headlined ‘Campaigner views farms’ (23rd October). “The tuna industry shows a willingness to engage in open, mature and transparent discussion,” Mr Staniford said. “That’s something the salmon farmers didn’t do and have come to regret”. Sadly, my suggestion to the Scottish salmon farmers’ association that they should sponsor me to stay longer in Australia researching into tuna farming (instead of salmon farming) has fallen on deaf ears.

So long and thanks for all the fish

Last but certainly not least I give thanks to everyone who has helped make this trip so successful. Special thanks to Helenka King and Natalie Martin at Queensland Conservation Council and Kate Martin and Craig Bohm of the Australian Marine Conservation Society for inviting me over to Australia to be a keynote speaker and for hosting me during my stay in Brisbane. My New Zealand trip would simply have not been possible without Otago University inviting me over to speak or to Shona Scott, Bill Hyslop, George Coulter, Martin and Heather Hunt of Protect Peach Cove, Kathy Walsh of the Kaiaua Citizens and Ratepayers Association, John Kenderdine of the Doubtless Bay Marine Protection Group, Clive Monds, Russell Feeney and Britta Hietz for their tireless work, hectic scheduling and excellent company. In South Australia I owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Hastings and David Deane of the Australian Marine Conservation Society as well as to Stephen and Janine Baker, Patricia VonBaumgarten, Rosemary Paxinos, Tony Flaherty, Mark Parnell and Michelle for putting me up (and putting up with me).

Thanks also to Paul Steere of New Zealand King Salmon, Brian Jeffries of the Tuna Boat Owners Association, Stephen Bedford-Clark of the Stehr Group and Johan Don of Fish Protech whose openness and transparency in showing me around fish farms contrasted markedly with both Nutreco and the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association who told me to “fish off”. Thanks to the Ministry of Fisheries, Department of Conservation, Auckland Regional Council, Whangarei District Council, Nelson City Council and the Green Party in New Zealand and to the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Environment and Heritage, SARDI and PIRSA in South Australia for providing an insight into the workings of government. Thanks to Dr Kate Wilson and her colleagues at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, to Dr Catherine Kemper of the South Australian Museum, to Grant Hobson and Joe Taylor of Friends of Sceale Bay, Steve Reynolds of the Marine Life Society of South Australia and to Alan Slater, Steve Wade, Trevor Watts and Alan Suter and all the fishermen I met in Whyalla and Port Lincoln. Finally, thanks to Dr Jian Qin of Flinders University, Dr Mark Lokman of Otago Univerity and to Dr Priya Kurian of the University of Waikato for the opportunity to indoctrinate students in the ‘five fundamental flaws’ of sea cage fish farming! Best fishes,

Don