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Living Marine Resources Management Amendment (Aquaculture Research) Bill 2021

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Tags: Fish Farms, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, this bill is ostensibly about research. Unarguably, research that is done in the public interest is, on the face of it, a social good, but we have to flag the huge concerns that we have with the bill. The way it has been drafted to amend the Living Marine Resources Act, it essentially enables a 'warts and all' expansion of the flaws within the salmon farming regulations in Tasmania, and it would export those flaws into Commonwealth waters. We have some very serious concerns and we have amendments to propose.

I will talk about the framework and history of this legislation. The current situation in Tasmania is that we have an extremely chequered and now highly damaged history with salmon farming in Tasmania. It is so damaged by the Labor and Liberal parties in government and their mismanagement of environmental protection that we have a markets campaign operating on mainland Australia. This is informing consumers about the real way salmon are farmed in Tasmania and the impact of salmon farming on inshore waterways and on freshwater streams, where flow through hatcheries still open pollute into our waterways, that people receive those waters and they have to be filtered, at vast expense, by TasWater to make them drinkable for residents in the south.

It is the impact on waterways in inshore areas like the Huon River, where I live, which has been so polluted by salmon farming over the last two decades that people can no longer find flathead in the waters, people cannot eat the shellfish on the edge of the banks, people do not see the little sea stars, the other sea life and vegetation that used to be there only five to 10 years ago.

Long Bay, on the Tasman Peninsula, this beautiful tiny little pocket of water just next to Port Arthur, is so polluted by the intensive salmon farming happening there now, where bigger pens and an increase in the number of pens are being put in. The seagrass in that whole area at different times of the year, depending on the water temperature, is choked by slime. The seagrass and the animal life it supports are utterly overtaken by the over nutrification of those waters. There is no natural flushing that can possibly dilute the amount of waste that goes from Tassal's operations in Long Bay to provide an opportunity for sea life that exists there to breathe, to survive, to take up oxygen and not be overtaken by algal growths.

These are just a few of the situations we are seeing right now in Tasmania, the degraded waterways, that our history of salmon farming regulation brought us a senate inquiry. Australian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson pushed for a Senate inquiry in 2015. It found that the failure of the Tasmanian Government to regulate in Macquarie Harbour meant there was an appalling level of hypoxia in that beautiful dark water basin and the Maugean skate is, we do not know how affected, but certainly brought to the brink of extinction. We are yet to find out what the long term impact on the survival of the Maugean skate is but the prognosis three years ago was very poor. That came from the repeated failure of the Environment Protection Authority to intervene, to enforce limits on Tassal and Huon Aquaculture's production to prevent the inexorable increasing of biomass occurring with companies determined to meet market supply lines, to meet contracts they have made in advance with supermarkets on the mainland. Their intention to do that at the expense of any caution or restraint to prevent the impact on the marine environment has been facilitated at every step of the way by the EPA. The EPA has found an opportunity for an administrative work around again and again so that there will be no stopping the amount of fish that go in a pen, the number of pens that go in the water, the number of leases available to salmon farming companies at any point, if that is what they desire.

It got to the point, with the expansion of Petuna, Tassal and Huon into Storm Bay, where even the two expert scientists on the marine farming review panel resigned in disgust. They could not, in good faith, continue in a process that was so corrupted, where there was no opportunity for them to require independent biogeochemical modelling before approvals were granted for companies to take up new leases in never before-farmed parts of Storm Bay - areas just next to West of Wedge, areas on the east of North Bruny Island, Trumpeter Bay. Places where there is no research on what the impact on the receiving environment was from the level of pollution which is now starting to be pumped into those places.

There was no impact assessment of the enormous amounts of nutrients, as projected by the companies themselves, that will be discharged into Storm Bay and flow, through the normal process of water movement, up into the Derwent Estuary.

The Derwent Estuary Program made a very strong submission against the expansion proposed for Storm Bay and they were totally ignored; the 10 years of work the Derwent Estuary Program did documenting the impacts of over-nutrification on the waters in the Derwent River, on the now recovering waters from the legacy of heavy metal contamination.

They made a very good point in their submission that the lowering of oxygen likely to come from the amount of nutrients discharged by the salmon farming companies in their operations would lead, in certain warm summer conditions, to the upwelling of heavy metals from legacy contamination, which have so far been sitting in the benthic layer. This is a concern for people who would be fishing in the Derwent and ultimately for any other uses of the Derwent River waters.

This is a government that in its two terms in office, facilitated and supported every step of the way by the Labor Party, has continued to ensure that the EPA is not able to do its primary job, which is to look after the environment and care for our environment into the future, to keep it in an at least as good, if not better, state than it currently is.

This is the context for this bill - failure to regulate to protect the environment, including marine life and birds affected by salmon farming operations. The seals, who are bombed where they have thrown explosives into the water, emitting large amounts of plastic which falls to the bottom of the waterway. Those seals are killed each year, are deafened, blinded, damaged. Reports of this go silent.

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, before the break I was talking about our concerns with the regulation of the salmon farm industry in Tasmania and the historical examples of failures by the EPA to enforce breaches of permit conditions and monitor the activities and operations of salmon farming companies appropriately. We have had many examples of deaths of seals, sea birds and other marine life from salmon farming operations.

The attempt by the Government to gain a social licence by creating, as they have called it, an independent EPA structure has failed. Prior to 2018, the Environment Protection Authority was within DIPWE. Within that department it was utterly conflicted, sitting under a minister who wants to double the size of the salmon industry in Tasmania while it was supposed to be working for the protection of the Tasmanian living marine environment.

The move outside the department structure was supposed to have established an independent EPA. At this year's Estimates the minister announced again that the EPA is going to become independent. So, we have an independent EPA squared process. After the questions the Greens asked of the minister it is clear that a statement of expectations that will direct the activities of the board and hence the direction of the EPA will be delivered by the minister to the EPA board. We question on the basis of history the EPA's ability to enforce the Living Marine Resources Act and the objectives for natural resource management under a statement of expectations of a government that wants to double the size of the salmon industry.

It is not possible to do that because if you want to look after the environment it will involve constraint from industry activities in certain areas. It will definitely make many places in Tasmanian waters off limits. Appropriately so. We are not the only ones concerned about the ability of the Government to regulate research activities in Commonwealth waters and put the protection of the environment and the living marine animals and plants in the Commonwealth waters above the industry's financial interest; a number of the submissions to this amendment bill have also made those points.

The submissions process was only two weeks long. That is a short amount of time to consult with stakeholders. I thank the staff who gave me the briefing and for answering my questions. I asked who were the key stakeholders negotiated or consulted with for this amendment bill. The list does not include any groups from the conservation or environment sector.

There are some now very well-known and well-established community not-for-profit conservation and environment groups in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Aquaculture Marine Protection Alliance, the Bob Brown Foundation and Environment Tasmania are three bodies that have been overseeing the activities of salmon farming in Tasmania, raising concerns on behalf of everyone in this state who wants to keep our natural environment intact and beautiful and to protect the species that live here and nowhere else on the planet. They were not consulted. That is a mistake. I asked why they were not consulted. There was no reason given in response. I ask the minister, on behalf of those groups, to expand his key stakeholder database to include groups that have an interest in aquaculture research in Tasmania. They care about the marine environment. That is a great starting point when you want to find out what the broadest section of Tasmanians thinks about a new piece of legislation.

Moving into Commonwealth waters is a new space of activity for aquaculture operations. Some of those stakeholders, including the Bob Brown Foundation, made a point about the things the bill enables, such as commercial gain that can occur through the research process. It is not clear from this bill what limits would be put on the setting of biomass or on commercial gains that could be made by companies or individuals undertaking aquaculture research.

That is left, we are led to believe, to the permit stage. There is no clarity in the second reading speech or in the explanatory consultation document to the draft bill about what those limits, if any, would be. Is there an understanding about the inevitable impact that large scale finfish farming, for example, might have on any receiving environment? If research is being done on finfish farming in Commonwealth waters, then biomass limits would be one of the things that may be tested.

There ought to be an assessment done prior to that work on the potential impact on the receiving environment. There is no information at all to guide the community to think that an initial baseline assessment of the environment will be done, as was at least talked about doing in Storm Bay. This is best practice for research - that before research or commercial activity is undertaken, there is an assessment of the baseline conditions. The sorts of species that are in an area, the abundance, the movements, the populations, the bio-geochemical model of the water that will comprise the search area - that should all be done. All of that should be done at the beginning, not just before commercial activities have started in an area, but before research on commercial activities is started. Depending on the question that the research seeks to answer, it might involve some sort of intensive farming process itself.

We cannot continue with the same approach that we have taken into aquaculture, which is to 'suck it and see'. The adaptive management approach is a failure. It has proven to be a failure in Macquarie Harbour. In-shore waters around Tasmania, time and again, have been let down by a failed management model that the EPA has been employing.

We have to change this. We have the possibility, and the requirement, to listen to the science and listen to the community. We must have a social licence for the commercial activities we undertake as a state, especially for the things that the government supports. We put so much funding into supporting the salmon farming industry that it ought to be one that we can be proud of.

The Greens took a policy to the last state election of moving salmon farming onto land. That is well established now, worldwide, as best practice, and that is where best practice aquaculture is moving. It is moving on land. It is moving to controlled, closed-loop systems that can be managed, where all the discharge can be accounted for, where all the pollution can be identified and managed. That is what best practice looks like, and that is what best practice research needs to be.

Ms Finlay - Do you want that in Tassie?

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, we do want that in Tasmania -

Ms Finlay - Full-scale, on-land, growing our fish.

Dr WOODRUFF - Ms Finlay, we do want that in Tasmania. We want to transform our salmon industry and make it one that is sustainable into the future because the one we have now is not. We are quite sure about that. That is what the science says. That is what communities say. If we want a social licence, if we want people on the mainland to re-think of Tasmanian salmon as being clean and green and an authentic brand, that is what we need to do.

We are concerned that the bill, as it stands, enables an extension out into yet a new piece of marine real estate, without putting the constraints that it ought to have to make sure we do not continue the current practices of damaging the environment because it is a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It is potentially a case of having a 'fig leaf' of research that opens the door to a permanent industry base in a region.

Tasmanians need to make sure that any new fish-farming or aquaculture activities have to be putting the public interest first, when they are on public interest land - not the industry's wishes first. We have to make sure that any new practices deal with pollution. That means plastic pollution, as well as the pollution of the discharge of waste from the fish that are farmed.

We need to have baseline biogeochemical modelling of conditions, and an environmental impact assessment on all other species that would be affected, such as predator species. For example, in Commonwealth waters that would include sharks and dolphins. Depending how far away from a land base, it could also include seals. It definitely includes birds.

It has to stop treating the ocean as a dumping ground for industry waste. It has to deal with animal welfare abuses. It has to put the EPA's role of protecting the environment first, instead of being the facilitator for an unending market supply for industries.

We are very concerned at the lack of detail in this bill. There are some huge questions about the extent to which the state laws will apply in respect of an agricultural research permit. We want to know which provisions, if any, of the Living Marine Resources Management Act 1995 and the Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act 1994, or similar legislation, will apply to this amendment bill today. We want to know to what extent the Animal Welfare Act 1993 will apply. Will the provision extend to consequential impacts of predator species, for example? Or will it solely apply to the animals being farmed, which is how it looks on the face of the amendment bill.

We want to know what assessment processes there will be for the suitability - including the environmental suitability - of the proposed area in respect of a permit. We also want to know whether marine spatial planning will be required to develop appropriate research zones in advance of them being decided upon. And, very importantly, whether the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel will have any role in making an assessment about which areas are used and opened up for research, and how activities within those areas are conducted.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we prepared an amendment to the second reading that the motion be amended by omitting everything after 'That', and inserting instead:

The bill be redrawn and redrafted for the following reasons - (a)

The bill does not provide for public consultation or appeal rights in relation to the issuing of a permit. (b)

The bill does not place explicit limitations in relation to duration, biomass or deriving profit from research activities. (c)

The bill does not explicitly require the recording and public reporting of environmental impact data. (d)

The bill does not provide for public reporting of permit conditions.

(e) The bill does not provide for assessments by the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel.

(f) The bill does not address significant flaws in the existing regulatory regime.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I raised a number of these points, but I want to go through them with crystal clarity. The bill came with a draft Living Marine Resources Management Amendment (Aquaculture Research) Bill consultation paper that circulated in October. It raises within that a whole range of questions about the bill, and proposes a number of answers to each of those questions - and within those answers, details are contained about how this amendment bill might actually work in the real world. We are concerned that is being left up to permits that will be provided by the EPA, without enough of the detail in the amendment bill itself.

The bill does not provide for public consultation, or any discussion at all about appeal rights around the issuing of a permit. That is a problem. There has been too much silence and behind closed doors decision making about salmon farming activities in Tasmania. We accept that research could also be done on other areas of aquaculture. However, let us be clear, the minister's second reading speech and the conversation and the narrative of this Government around that research is fundamentally premised on finfish farming.

We commend the work that is happening in Tasmania with seaweed research. There is already some tremendous work being done on all different sorts of seaweed including on great giant kelp, and the work that has been happening off the Tasman Peninsula is incredible. It is very hopeful even in the worst possible conditions, the early baby kelp that was planted last year have shown its capacity to grow outside of the zone that they came from with incredible vigour. I think 13 metres were covered in only a couple of months by only one of the plants. They have all taken off. It is great that research is being done in kelp and also other types of seaweed. There are commercial activities commencing on the east coast. There is no doubt that seaweed is an exciting area.

At the moment the science is out on the ability of seaweed to be effectively used to draw down carbon where it is much spruiked as a potential valuable resource for us in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There is no doubt that seaweed contains carbon and holds carbon but whether it can actually actively draw down out of the ocean's additional carbon is very much an unknown question at the moment. It may not be that hopeful resource we are hoping it might be. We want to put that on the record. We strongly support that research.

Fundamentally, this amendment bill is about enabling the investigation in another waterway, a waterway that the public will not be able to see what is going on. They will not really have eyes on the activities and the consultation process around the research that is going to be done, what the safeguards are, and what the permit conditions will be. That is very important and has to be an early part of the process in order for people to have confidence in what is going on.

Second, the bill does not place explicit limitations in relation to the length of time for the research that will be conducted for the biomass intensity of the research activities or for the profit that is derived from the search.

I will read from the Government's answer to the question in their consultation draft: where is the line between what is research versus ongoing commercial activity? They have said:

Marine aquaculture research activities under permit would only be for fixed term, limited scale activities. Permits for scientific research generally include conditions that prevent the sale or the transfer of product for commercial purposes. However, while the primary purpose is not commercial financial returns, the sale of 'fish' and/or intellectual property that may be derived from the permitted research activity may be used to offset costs incurred by the proponent in undertaking research activities.

There is a lot of loose language there. The use of the term 'generally', talking about 'may be used to offset costs', there is no clarity about how offsetting costs will be defined. It is also not clear whether it could be used to offset costs and have a bit left over, for how much? How long is a piece of string? There is no constraint on that. Fundamentally, if these waters were to be used then they would have to be used for research and not as research. It is about the tail wagging and the dog. Is this really about research? The activities of any business could be defined fundamentally as being about research. Businesses are always looking at innovation and improving the business that they do.

We are keen to make sure that the research is defined in a narrow and prescribed way so that we can be confident that there would not be any slippage, so that the whole of the operations of the commercial fin fishing activity would be captured under the umbrella term of research, which would be disingenuous but worth clarifying.

The bill does not provide for any public reporting of the permit conditions. Again, this is about understanding exactly how wild species would be protected and how a discharge would be managed. How is discharge going to be managed? Will there be freshwater bathing required if there are salmon farming activities in these research areas? Would there be water transported from the mainland of Tasmania to this area and back again? Which places would they be drawn from? Would there be a land base established for the research activity in the north west, for example? Would there be a land base established for the research activity in the north-west, for example? Where would that land base be? What would the relationship between local water sources and water that may or may not be required for Gill Bay being in some research site?

We do not understand whether there is going to be any baseline assessment of the lease for research and the role of the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel in this regard, especially one that was constituted to enable scientists to give their free and frank advice about the assessment of an area. The Marine Farming Planning Review Panel should be invoked in any assessment for a lease area.

Finally, this bill does not address significant flaws in the existing regulatory regime. That is the regulatory regime that governs the granting of environmental licences and the permits around that which sit under the responsibilities of the EPA.

Mr Deputy Speaker, if the minister could answer some of those questions that I have just asked - we do not understand that there would any problem if the minister is genuine about wanting to have research only being conducted in these spaces, particularly public interest research. This is about ensuring that publicly owned waters are used for genuine public interest research.

We are at a point in time where it is critical that we look with a real close eye to the biodiversity issues and the carbon emissions issues with all industry, and all work that the Government is funding. We are in a biodiversity crisis and we cannot afford to step off into new territory - now waters in this case - without making sure that we are doing that in the best interest of the whole community and not just being pushed by the financial interests of a number of very large corporations that, as a matter of record, donate to both the Labor and the Liberal parties.

Where we have a state with weak environmental regulations, we are concerned to make sure that the public gets a proper say about new activities that might further expand the finfish industry. We are concerned to make sure that the science, through independent expert scientists, get an opportunity to assess the underlying environmental status of any new areas of finfish activity.

This is essentially like another Storm Bay but this bill is enabling it to be created without the oversight, without the public eyes and scrutiny of the Storm Bay approvals process. We are approving, ostensibly, research. But when research is not clearly defined, not constrained with time limits, when the amount of activity is also not defined and where there is no constraint on the amount of commercial gain that can be made from those activities, we are concerned.

That is why this bill needs to be withdrawn today, redrafted to take account of those issues and brought back so that we can look at the benefits of research in their own right, particularly the benefits on research into land based salmon farming, because that is where industries that want to have a future around the planet are heading.