Tasmanian EPA rejects request for real time disclosure of antibiotics at fish farms

Integrity Commission review scathing of government agency information failings
 May 27, 2024
Published:  May 27, 2024
Tassal's Long Bay salmon farm, Tasman Peninsula. Image: Photo: contributed.

Tasmania’s environment regulator has rejected a request that it notify the public in real time when salmon companies use antibiotic-coated feed at fish farms in the state’s waterways.

Tasmanian Inquirer asked the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to disclose details of antibiotic use at fish farms so recreational fishers and the public would be aware of where and when medicated feed was occurring.

The agency’s refusal of the right to information (RTI) request occurred shortly before a scathing Integrity Commission review criticised Tasmanian government agencies’ “unnecessary delays” in disclosing information.

The commission found Tasmania’s RTI regime was “marred by noncompliance with the letter and the spirit of the law, evidenced by an over-reliance on exemptions, unnecessary delays and general poor practices”.

It insisted that the default position must be that information must be released “unless there is good reason not to do so”, and warned that poor practices exposed public sector organisations to misconduct risks.

The chief commissioner, Greg Melick, said poor RTI practices by government agencies “erode public trust in government”.

The EPA discloses details of antibiotic use at fish farms only when residue monitoring reports are published. These reports include details such as the specific antibiotic prescribed, the amount used, the disease affecting the fish, the duration of the treatment, the number of cages treated, and the name and location of the lease. However, the authority publishes these reports long after the use of antibiotics has concluded. Details of antibiotic residue detected in March 2023 in wild fish at a Tassal salmon farm at almost five times the allowable level for human consumption were made public in January this year.

“If fish stocks are impacted in any way that can impact people that consume them we expect prompt notification.”

Jane Gallichan, TARfish.

The EPA’s information disclosure policy states information should be considered for routine disclosure when it is “significant, relevant and meaningful to the community” and when it promotes “transparency and accountability of the agency’s decisions and operations”. The authority boasts on its website that “both the board and the director exercise powers at arm’s length from state government and have independent statutory powers under the act”.

EPA director Wes Ford refused to process the RTI request to disclose details at the time of use, and instead suggested it would “best be directed to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania for discussion with [Industry] Minister [Eric] Abetz.”

Ford defended the agency’s practice of delayed disclosure of antibiotic use. “The current EPA process provides information to the community in a timely manner to demonstrate that antibiotic residues in the environment are adequately monitored,” he wrote.

Tasmanian Inquirer has lodged an appeal against Ford’s decision with Ombudsman Tasmania.

TARfish, a recreational fishing body, said it supported the “timely and transparent” release of information. “As fishers, we rely on our regulators to ensure the health of wild fish and their safe consumption, including by recreational fishers. If fish stocks are impacted in any way that can impact people that consume them we expect prompt notification,” the group’s chief executive, Jane Gallichan, said.

John Stanfield, secretary of the Tasmanian Amateur Sea Fisherman’s Association and an administrator of the 7800-member RecFishTas Facebook group, has previously called for public disclosure at the time antibiotics are in use.

During the election campaign, neither Labor nor Liberal party leaders committed to notifying the public when an antibiotic was in use at fish farms.

Crossbench MPs back call for review of the EPA

Concern about EPA secrecy is shared by a coalition of crossbench MPs in both houses of the Tasmanian parliament. They want an independent inquiry into the authority’s performance in protecting the state’s environment.

Neighbours of Fish Farming (NOFF) initiated the call for an inquiry. The group is particularly concerned about what it believes is the authority's failure to protect the endangered Maugean skate from the impacts of fish farming in Macquarie Harbour. NOFF’s president, Peter George, said the authority was known for its secrecy.

The call has been backed by the Jacqui Lambie Network, the Greens and independents Kristie Johnston, Craig Garland, Meg Webb and Mike Gaffney.

Greens leader Rosalie Woodruff said it was “impossible” to get information about the relationship between the EPA and regulated industries. “Where there is a choice between protecting the environment or continuing business as usual they go with finding an arrangement to continue with business as usual,” she said.

Johnston said the community was concerned about EPA secrecy. “It is not good enough that we can’t get real-time information about antibiotics being pumped into our waterways,” she said.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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