Anthony Albanese’s visit to Tassal’s salmon plant in the south of Tasmania on January 17 was a calculated provocation.
The prime minister appeared keen to repeat the controversy stirred up last August when he wore a Rio Tinto hi-vis shirt with “Anthony” stitched above his right pocket, during a visit to the mining giant’s facilities in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.
This time, Albanese appeared before the media in a vest embroidered with his nickname “Albo” and a hat printed with the controversial aquaculture giant’s logo. The office of prime minister is now open to corporate sponsorship. He is happy to be used as a Tassal prop.
Albanese is on a mission to win back from the Coalition an awkward amalgam of corporate backing and blue-collar votes. In doing so he has had to accept the risk of haemorrhaging more Labor votes to the Greens and teals. His Tassal talk was about workers and jobs, but his clear message was to the big end of town: I am your prime minister.
Tassal is the biggest of the three companies exploiting Tasmania’s inshore waters for industrial salmon “farming”. All are owned overseas. Millions of the introduced salmon swim in huge pens parked in places such as the Huon and Derwent estuaries, including Storm Bay, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel that separates mainland Tasmania from Bruny Island, the Mercury Passage at Maria Island on the east coast, and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast.
The fish are funnelled pellets and their faeces drop to the sea floor where they result in suffocation of the marine ecosystem. Around these farms there is widespread, life-stifling hypernitrogenation and deoxygenation.
Macquarie Harbour is particularly contentious because it is the only remaining habitat of the Maugean skate, a stingray-like creature dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. The skate is now on the doorstep of extinction due to multiple causes, but scientists say the main problem is the salmon pens that deplete oxygen from the harbour’s waters.
The once-abundant Maugean skate now numbers less than 1000. Tanya Plibersek, Albanese’s minister for the environment, has had to intervene and flag the removal of the industry from the harbour if a solution to the skate’s plight cannot be found.
That alarmed the foreign-owned salmon industry. Tassal is owned by Canadian company Cooke Aquaculture, which has a history of environmental calamity. Its Atlantic salmon operations were ordered out of Seattle’s Puget Sound for breaching environmental standards there.
So Albanese’s arrival at Tassal’s operations hub at Barretta Bay, south of Hobart, will have given an enormous sigh of relief to the parent company in New Brunswick, Canada. Plibersek was nowhere to be seen.
The cap the prime minister was photographed wearing had a tagline running under the Tassal logo: “It’s Australian for seafood”. The claim is as brazen as it is absurd. Atlantic salmon are a genetically attenuated version of a fish from the north Atlantic, about as far from Australia as it’s possible to get. The message undermines Tasmania’s brand, reputation for nature and claim for high-quality natural seafoods.
Albanese’s personalised vest carried the logo of “Salmon Tasmania”, the industry’s peak body, which lobbies for government grants, institutional partnerships and laws “to ensure sustainable operation and regulation of the industry”. It had months of secret liaison with Canberra to plan this outfit.
No word has been more readily purloined for greenwashing than “sustainable”, but Tassal does it with particular flair. Getting Australia’s prime minister to rig up as its advertising board was a corporate coup.
It’s not hard to guess what the former Norwegian Labour environment minister and prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who made the word “sustainable” so potent, would make of all this. The United Nations commissioned Brundtland’s epic 1983 report “Our Common Future”, which famously came up with the concept of “sustainable development”, defined as economic development that is conducted without the depletion of natural resources. This meant ensuring future generations would get the same natural legacy we have.
Salmon Tasmania’s version of “sustainable operation and regulation of the industry” makes the Maugean skate expendable. It demands that not one fish, not one job should be at stake to save the species. Add not one dollar of profit.
The same applies to the remarkable pink and red handfish, hanging on against extinction in the waters being invaded by industrial aquaculture south of Hobart.
Tassal has slaughtered hundreds of cormorants and an unknown number of fur seals. The day after Albanese flew back from Tasmania, its application to use underwater explosives to ward off seals from its salmon leases was rejected by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which sets the standards for responsible fish farming around the world.
The council said it was not convinced Tassal would be able to sufficiently minimise the impact on wildlife and that Tassal had failed to provide “credible evidence” for its rationale that it needed explosives to ensure the safety of its workers.
Photographs of seals with Tassal-fired missiles embedded in their eyes have had much less impact on politicians than on the public. The publication of Richard Flanagan’s 2021 book Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry lifted the veil on the Atlantic salmon industry’s environmental and social malfeasances and ignited a popular campaign to get the industry cleaned up. However, the companies already had the major political parties hooked and Albanese is demonstrating how deeply that hook has jagged.
Asked about how he would honour Plibersek’s commitment to action at Macquarie Harbour, including removing industrial fish farming if necessary to rescue the Maugean skate from extinction, Albanese said, “I support their jobs, I support all jobs. I am a pro-jobs prime minister and we need to support jobs and there’s no conflict between jobs and sustainability.”
He continued: “We have environmental laws that have to be dealt with … they’re not optional, they’re the law and we comply with the law and we do so in a sustainable way and we’re working with industry to work through these issues.”
The “we” Albanese refers to is a government that has also backed the industry’s push for laws against protests. Tasmania’s Atlantic salmon industry successfully lobbied Labor and Liberal parties for laws that criminalise peaceful protests against the fish cages invading the island’s inshore waters. Citizens are banned from entering the peppercorn-rental sea leases in which the companies operate, under threat of large fines or jail sentences.
A small but noisy throng of protesters could be heard throughout the prime minister’s media conference in Tasmania, although they were locked out of the Tassal premises. The Albanese entourage was furious. Who had tipped off the demonstrators that he was about to visit? After all, he was there to advertise Tassal, not be accountable to the public.
This much is becoming clear: in our era of environmental crises, Albanese is not an environmental prime minister. While polls show most Labor voters want an end to the logging of Australia’s native forests, no more licensing of coalmines or gas extraction projects and the protection of Tasmania’s coastline from expanding industrial aquaculture, Albanese is not listening.
Like John Howard, he may be “greenish”, but corporate wellbeing is this Labor leader’s top priority.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Gone f ishing".
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