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Primary Industries and Water – Seal Deaths

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Tags: Seals, Fish Farms, Animal Welfare, Native Wildlife

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, despite your comments earlier that everything is tickety boo with the salmon industry, there are an enormous number of deaths of seals each year that are reported by salmon farmers, that we know of. Just a few weeks ago a report in the ABC shows that there were 23 seal deaths in the last reporting period and three quarters of those were reported from Huon Aquaculture, which is the company which has now been bought by JBS, the company which is on record for its criminal activities and complete disregard for the environment.

Minister, are you concerned at the gross use of underwater explosives, more than 8000 underwater explosives that are used for the purpose of scaring seals? And are you going to do something to change the way that the Government regulates the damage to protected Australian fur seals that is done by fish farm companies?

Ms PALMER - The Government takes animal welfare and workers' safety very seriously. That is why we have the Seal Management Framework to guide appropriate management of wildlife interactions with the marine farming industry. The framework is based on strict protocols to ensure compliance with the laws and obligations. In limited circumstances, deterrent devices are made available to marine farmers. The deterrent devices available to farmers now are the same deterrents that were available under previous governments, including the Labor-Greens government.

Dr WOODRUFF - Totally irrelevant.

CHAIR - Dr Woodruff, please let the minister answer in silence.

Ms PALMER - There are three deterrent types available to the marine farming industry and almost all deterrents used now involve only seal crackers. In the past year I am advised there has been a substantial reduction in the use of steel crackers statewide. In fact, in 2021 there was a 66 per cent reduction.

The seal management framework and minimum requirements provide standards, tools and procedures to manage interactions between marine wildlife and salmon industry staff and farm infrastructure to minimise risks to farm workers and to protect animal welfare.

Under the framework, NRE Tas authorises the salmonid aquaculture industry to access a variety of tools to manage fur seals and seabird interactions. Salmon companies are only allowed access to seal deterrents if they have demonstrated that wildlife exclusion measures outlined in the minimum requirements are met.

In addition, seal deterrents can only be used by persons who have a valid permit issued by NRE Tas under the Nature Conservation Act 2002 and a current firearms licence. The department follows strict protocols when considering applications from persons seeking to use seal deterrents to ensure appropriate checks and balance are in place to manage safety and animal welfare considerations.

Permits to use seal deterrents are only issued in circumstances where the applicant has demonstrated a valid reason for using deterrents and received appropriate training in their use. This training, which is delivered by NRE Tas ensures applicants are fully aware of the animal welfare requirements. The department also employs a dedicated wildlife management officer to advise marine farm staff on wildlife behaviour, the requirements of the framework and practical ways to minimise risk in relation to wildlife interactions, including with seals.

All reports of non-compliance are assessed to inform further action. Animal welfare matters and other reports of more serious potential compliance issues are referred to the department's Investigations and Enforcement section. Where warranted, advice from departmental vets and/or the Chief Veterinary Officer is routinely sought in relation to animal health and welfare questions.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, minister. What you have said does not stack up with the concerns raised by the government wildlife biologist Sam Thalmann, who wrote that salmon company estimates of seal deaths due to the use of approved deterrents were, 'likely a large underestimate of many seals with injury penetrating wounds resulting from deterrents that would leave the area and die outside the lease area'.

You just talked about seal crackers being the dominant use. Can you tell me then, whether you are now going to prevent the use of the lead-filled plastic shot, which is euphemistically called bean bags, and also of darts with blunt tips that are euphemistically called scare caps? These are extremely damaging to seals, permanently damaging. An RTI we saw last year had one of a baby seal with a bean bag lodged in its eye still. Will you end that cruel practice?

Ms PALMER - I am going to refer to the acting secretary.

Mr JACOBI - The images we all saw were very disturbing and of great concern to the department. We take our responsibilities very seriously. It is a great opportunity for us to bring Kris Carlyon, acting manager of Natural Values and Science, to the table to provide a greater explanation about the nature of the deterrents and how they are used.

Mr CARLYON - The minister has mentioned the fact that three separate devices are currently available to the industry under the minimum requirements of the seal management framework and that crackers dominate the use by the industry. Crackers are far away the most used by the industry; 98 per cent of devices are crackers.

With regard to bean bag and scare cap use, the industry is choosing themselves not to use those in recent years, so no scare caps are currently used by the industry and that is a decision they have made themselves. As far as bean bag use goes, only 72 bean bags have been used industry-wide in 2022 so far. So, the industry itself is choosing not to use those devices.

Dr WOODRUFF - Is that 2021-22 or calendar year 2022?

Mr CARLYON - I will double-check because we do have the figures for both. That is 2021-22, 72 bean bag devices.

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, JBS, which now owns Huon Aquaculture, has far and away an enormous share of the use of explosives, far more than the other companies. It was 75 per cent more use by JBS than by the other two companies in the 15 months that it was reported. How do you explain this gross difference? There is obviously something going wrong with the company which is having to employ those sorts of tactics. Either the training for workers or their commitment to animal welfare. There are a whole range of reasons. Are you investigating and putting some pressure on companies to stop doing that? It is clear that other companies are leading the way and showing it is possible not to use as many.

Ms PALMER - Thank you for the question. I will refer it to the acting secretary.

Mr JACOBI - Thank you, through the minister I do believe it is the age of the equipment that is a contributing factor, but I will defer to Kris to provide any more detail.

Mr CARLYON - Thank you and through you, minister, that is correct. The Secretary just mentioned age of equipment. We do see swings and roundabouts, I think it is fair to say, where different companies are experiencing more or less pressure in any particular given year that is related to age and condition of infrastructure in the water. Obviously the more vulnerable that equipment is, the more seal interactions you have. Seals are very smart animals, they will target the weak points -

Dr WOODRUFF - So companies that under-invest lead to more animal welfare abuses?

Mr CARLYON - I think we see when one company puts new and improved infrastructure in the water, we see that seal pressure shift and they may then seek out some weak points across the industry. I think also we see increased seal pressure and therefore increased deterrent use in areas that are more exposed to different weather conditions and different sea states, and that equipment and infrastructure is perhaps a little more vulnerable to seal pressure.

We are continuing to work with the industry to identify what these issues are and why one particular area, or one particular lease even, might have more seal pressure and therefore require more deterrents, and coming up with solutions to work through that.