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Finfish Farming - Norfolk Bay

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Tags: Huon Aquaculture, Handfish, Algal Blooms

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Motion) - Madam Speaker, I move -

That the House calls on the Minister for Primary Industries and Water, Hon. Sarah Courtney MP, to act immediately to cancel any lease or licence associated with finfish farming in zone 13 of the Tasman Peninsula and Norfolk Bay Marine Farming Development Plan.

The Greens bring on this motion today as a matter that requires urgent action and are calling on the minister to act immediately in her role as responsible minister for finfish farming in this state to cancel the licence for Huon Aquaculture to farm finfish in their Green Head offline bay reserve in Norfolk Bay.

If ever there was an example of an industry acting in a way that damages the interests of the local community, will irreparably damage the local marine environment, damages the financial interests of other businesses, threatens people who are boating or sailing on the water and damages the clean, green brand that is the backbone of the Tasmanian tourism and food industries, including of course the salmon industry itself, the Norfolk Bay expansion is it. If ever there was an example of an industry that is acting utterly with its own self-interest first and foremost regardless of the impact it has on the communities, other businesses and of course on the public commons, then this is it.

That is why we have to have a focus not on the company or the industry itself but firmly on the Government, firmly on the role and the responsibility of the minister to take control and to establish strong rules of fairness, independence, a right to have a say for all parties, and a right to appeal unfair, unjust or incorrect decisions. That is what this motion seeks to achieve in the instance of Norfolk Bay. This is operating within the whole larger move by the three salmon companies into Storm Bay and I acknowledge upfront that the context of this discussion has been a call by a wide and increasing range of bodies in the community for a moratorium on the expansion of salmon farm companies in Tasmanian waters, especially in Storm Bay and in the north-west and on the east coast. That is the context.

This is a specific example which shows more clearly than anything else what has happened in the now long history of damaging and poor regulation of this Government and previous Labor governments to take control and demand that the industry operates by the same rules. No-one is asking for more than the same rules that other companies are required to operate by, the same requirement for procedural fairness for the opportunity to have formal submissions made, the opportunity to appeal unjust decisions, and to have independent assessments of impacts.

The first time that locals heard about the prospect of finfish farming in Norfolk Bay was only weeks ago, and let us not forget, Norfolk Bay has never had finfish farmed in it before. It is home to a range of mussel and other shellfish leases, many of which are still sitting there dormant and have never had farming within them. This was one such lease which we understand has been owned by Huon Aquaculture for 15 years, but it was previously a mussel lease. The first time people heard about this was the proposed move by Huon Aquaculture to put, as was reported to me by members of the community, diseased fish in Norfolk Bay.

As it turns out, Huon Aquaculture, by its own question and answer sheet, makes it clear that these are potentially POMV-infected fish that are being placed in the Norfolk Bay lease to satisfy a problem they have with being able to operate biosecurity properly and to manage their volume and flow of operations in Storm Bay.

As a result of that, people did not believe that it was going to happen. They just thought it was an idea being floated around, but when people rang me two weeks ago from Primrose Sands, Connellys Marsh, Carlton River, Dodges Ferry, Koonya and other places on the Tasman Peninsula, telling me that there were pens being towed into Norfolk Bay and it was actually happening, they could not believe it. They could not believe that it would actually happen. They could not believe they did not even get to have a say about it.

This is an area that has never had finfish farming, an area that is home to the most incredible diversity of wild fish populations and recovering populations of fish which, thanks to the work of recreational fishers, the quota systems that have been operating and the changed fishing practices, there has now been a renewal of populations of a whole range of fish such as flathead, garfish, squid and gummy shark that swim and breed in the reef right below the pen that Huon Aquaculture will be farming and harvesting their fish within. These fish populations are plentiful and wild. The environment, the benthic layers are underneath the pen, and the seagrass meadows around that pen, are beautiful. I spoke to somebody this afternoon who rang me about today's motion. He said he had dived down there and it is amazing. It is a beautiful, diverse area, and he could not believe that this is the same place Huon Aquaculture will be dropping massive concrete blocks as ballast and mooring for their lighting and signage around the outside of the lease. This is the same place where tonnes and tonnes of salmon will be putting their excreta out into the waterways.

What has followed is community outrage. Two public meetings occurred last weekend - one at Koonya and one at Dodges Ferry - with hundreds of people at each meeting. This was a spontaneous uprising of people who, with one week's notice, came to these public meetings and voiced their unanimous censure for the role of the EPA in signing off this development without their right to have a say, and censure of the minister for not providing them an opportunity to talk about the impacts on them: on their place; on their recreational fishing opportunities; their sailing routes; their safety on the water; on the debris and plastics which we know will end up in Norfolk Bay as a result of fish farming. Everywhere fish farming operates, there is marine debris.

When I attended the two meetings at the weekend, I heard from people who voiced their objections on a whole range of issues. Marine debris was right up there. Marine safety was right up there. This has been the straw that broke the camel's back. Many people have been hearing about this issue and it is a bit like the boiled frog syndrome - people in the Huon and Channel know this well: a slow increase in the industrial operations of fish farming in those waterways.

This is completely new territory. This is from a company which has prided itself on taking a different stand, on going forward and not going backwards to the old ways, of moving oceanic not into inshore waters. Norfolk Bay is inshore. Norfolk Bay is a place which should never have industrial-scale finfish farming. It is a place for small-scale, thoughtful, mussel farming, oyster farming, recreational fishing in a way that has paid attention to the impacts on the environment, in a way that makes sure the population of fish that live there will continue to grow, not decline.

I want to talk about the process of approvals because that is what we are here about today. We know there was never any public consultation at all with any of those affected communities. There was never any consultation with other business owners, like Mr Flathead - a man called Mr Duncan who owns a business called Mr Flathead - and his business is recreational fishing, taking people out on the water. He will be directly affected. The season starts at the beginning of November. The fish he takes people out to see, to dive to look at, to catch, will be affected by this move.

There was no survey of residents to ask them their views about the noise impacts.

Ms O'Connor - Quite deliberate.

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, very deliberate. When people rang up Huon Aquaculture to ask them to hold a public meeting, they said they do not do that. The company's policy now is to meet with individual members of the community, one on one. That is a great way to make sure you do not hear what your neighbour's concerns are. That is a great way to make sure you do not get up a head of steam amongst a group of people who might collectively form a view that the activities being proposed are outrageous and need to be resisted.

The community spoke with one voice. They were gobsmacked that the EPA director did not enforce a public consultation process when he went ahead and signed off the licence conditions for Huon Aquaculture to operate on that lease. We know DPIPWE, the minister's marine farming branch, rushed through a licence for Huon Aquaculture to move pens into their lease only a couple of weeks after the idea was first floated. The minister can correct that information.

We know the EPA has draft regulations which came out in February this year. These draft regulations for how they should approve environmental licences for salmon farming, specifically require that in this instance, the director of the EPA should refer the matter to the full EPA board for a full assessment under the Environmental Management and Pollution and Control Act. That would require a public submission process and an independent assessment of the impacts. It would enable the right to appeal a decision of the board, it would put it into an essentially judicial process. Instead, what happened is that the director of the EPA invited Huon Aquaculture to provide their own stakeholder report including monitoring of impacts.
The directive stipulated a number of extremely narrow impacts that needed to be monitored and handed over that responsibility to the company.

Huon Aquaculture has employed a consultant to do that work, a consultant who makes money from fish farming companies - that is their bread and butter business. They were tasked, amongst other things with looking for the existence of the critically endangered red handfish, that pesky, lovable little fish that we know only exists in two populations in the world, one of which is in Norfolk Bay. We know because seven divers went looking last January, they spent three-and-a-half hours in the water and just at the end of their investigations, searching under algae, and they happened upon a red handfish. How fantastic is that? We now know there is another population of red handfish, they are very hard to find, extremely easy to miss if the only impact assessment you do is with a GoPro taking video transects in the water. You do not even know the clarity of the water. What a surprise they could not find the red handfish. Ipso facto it does not exist.

That is not good enough. The director of the EPA conceded that the habitat is suitable for the red handfish. The community group, Environment Tasmania, is standing up for beautiful animals like the red handfish. They have referred the matter to the federal Environment minister for an assessment under the Environment Protection, Biodiversity and Conservation Act. Thank goodness for conservation and community groups around Tasmania that are doing their best on the smell of an oily rag.

What should happen is that this assessment should be done first before Huon Aquaculture goes in. Of course it should be done first. Blind Freddy would know that it should be done first. You do not start the work of harvesting hundreds of thousands of fish without having worked out if there is a handfish under the pens and the impacts your operations will have. The director of the EPA has waived through the licence. This is despite the fact that the draft regulations of the EPA say that it is a requirement when a lease has not had finfish in it for more than 10 years and three months, or when there is a referral under the EPBC act, that the matter should go to the board of the EPA, a full board, for proper assessment.

That is what should have happened and that is why we call this a corrupted process. That is why we are calling on the minister to listen to the community, to the other businesses, to listen to the evidence of the suspected damage that will occur, to the likely threats that will occur to the marine environment and the safety of mariners, to the residents whose lifestyle will be unutterably altered by having finfish farming on their beautiful tranquil waterways. That is why we are calling on the Labor Party and the Government to cancel that licence.
We know that this licence is a permit for operating until 31 December. Huon Aquaculture's own Q&A sheet online is the only information they have given the community. There is no other information to go on except the company's own information. That information says they are going to finish operating on 30 November.

The clear message from the community is they want them out. They did not want them there in the first place. They were not asked nor given a say. The minister may say that this is an urgent situation. The company was in a difficult situation and we have to understand that this is urgent, it is particular, and there is a biosecurity threat. I tell you what the community said about that. The community said, 'Sort your problems out first. Sort your own company continued growth model out first'.

The chair of Huon Aquaculture, Peter Bender, was in the newspaper last week talking up how fantastic it is that they made a $35 million profit last financial year. Well, good on them, fantastic. No-one minds businesses making money. That is what businesses are there to do.

Ms O'Connor - But it is a public resource. Public waterways.

Dr WOODRUFF - Exactly. They happen to be operating on public waterways so there needs to be a higher bar for them to operate from. Peter Bender said they have the capacity and the infrastructure for continued growth. Their continued growth is happening on Storm Bay, in a place which has wild water, that is all known. They have been crowing about how prepared they are for this and how they will be a world-first leader in operating in Storm Bay. That may well prove to be the case, but the fact is they have the fish in the water in Storm Bay and they are telling the community they have to move into Norfolk Bay because they cannot operate in Storm Bay because it is too dangerous. They are telling the community, 'We have to take our diseased fish into your bay because we cannot take them to where we would normally process them because they might infect our other stock'.

You can see how all of this urgency is really confected. If it was a company that was regulated by a government that required them to look ahead and plan for these contingencies, that did not allow them to go into Storm Bay because they do not have the scientific assessment that says they should be there and they have never done an impact assessment of that either, if we had a strong government doing strong tough regulations, we would not be in this situation.

This is about stopping in Norfolk Bay and moving to the moratorium we have always had to have so we can stop this madness and have a government that puts tough regulations in place so there is a prospect of having a sustainable industry. At the moment, the wreckage it is doing to marine environments, other businesses and communities around the state, and to the water supply of Tasman Peninsula, the East Coast and so many other factors, is all on the head of the Liberal Party who have not only allowed it to happen but have enabled it to happen.

The Labor Party's member for Lyons, Jen Butler, was there on Saturday and she listened carefully. She heard the comments from the community and their concerns about a repeat of Macquarie Harbour in Norfolk Bay with algal blooms and dead zones and the visual pollution of their seascape. They are concerned about fresh water depletion from the aqua farm at Mt Koonya and Mt Clark that is important for the Tasman Peninsula, and about the impacts on their local fish populations of flathead and the newly returned bastard trumpeter, flounder, abalone, mussels, garfish, gummy shark, squid and rock lobster. Sea eagles and wedge-tail eagles, which are also endangered species, live above that pen site and have never been assessed for impacts on them. No impacts on cetaceans were assessed by the director of the EPA in his sole responsibility of making that decision. It is all wrong.

There is a way to change and improve it. It can be done, and the first step is to talk to local communities about moves like this and to talk to independent scientists and undertake the assessments that we need to have.

Madam Speaker, I want to leave time for other people to make contributions before I return to wind up this debate.

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, I am very disappointed and as will the community to hear that Labor will not be supporting this motion. It is unfortunate that the member for Lyons, Jen Butler, was not in the House.

Ms O'Connor - Or Ms White.

Dr WOODRUFF - Or the member for Lyons, Ms White, to hear the issues that their community are raising. This is a key issue for people living in the southern beaches and Tasman Peninsula right now.

Nothing that the minister said is surprising because the problem with the Liberals in government has been a failure to put in place the tough regulations that they say are needed. The minister started off talking about the $730 million or $740 million industry. That is clearly the only objective here: to open the door. Open the door for the industry to operate in whatever manner they so wish on publicly-owned waterways, affecting the communities and as we have seen from Macquarie Harbour absolutely totally damaging marine environments. They are not even staying to clean up the mess they have made. They are springboarding out of Macquarie Harbour and jumping to other sites around the state.

The point is that the whole approval of this so-called temporary permit has not been done in anything like an independent way. The minister has called the Greens to account for reflecting on the independence of the EPA. A motion was moved at the Dodges Ferry meeting by the room to censure the Director of the EPA for the approvals that he has waved through on the basis of the material that Huon Aquaculture gave him for this development. The problem is that we do not have a truly independent EPA.

Truly independent authorities say in the establishing legislation that the Government cannot direct or interfere with them. What we have in the EPA's legislation stipulates the opposite. That they must comply with directions from the minister. Section 15 of the Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act 1994 sets out that the minister must provide the board with a statement of expectations, and section 15 stipulates the board must not act in a way that is inconsistent with the statement of expectations. The statement of expectations that has been issued to the EPA includes taking into account Tasmanian Government policies as well as policies advised by the minister in writing. That leaves the door open for the minister effectively to direct the EPA on any matter at any time through policy statements. An example of those policies is page 3 of the statement of expectations that says the minister expects the EPA to facilitate affluence and productivity.

There you go. The communities of southern beaches and Tasman Peninsula do not have the answer they want. There are desperate people and there are many people talking about this as being the straw that broke the camel's back. On the minister's head be it for any reputational damage that comes to this industry as a result of this absolutely outrageous, totally unassessed development into a completely new are for finfish farming, ostensibly for a short-term period to solve the problems of an industry that has never cared about the effects on the other environments or communities.