Tasmanian recreational fishing group wants public notification of antibiotic use at fish farms

Labor and Liberal leaders defend current approach, while Greens and independent MP back change
 March 12, 2024
Published:  March 12, 2024
Recreational fishing in Tasmania. Image: Mark Horstman

A Tasmanian recreational fishing group has called for prompt public notification of antibiotic use in marine fish farms, a proposal not supported by the Labor or Liberal parties but backed by the Greens and a sitting independent MP.

It follows Tasmanian Inquirer reporting that wild fish caught at a salmon farm operated by the state’s largest salmon company, Tassal contained antibiotic residue almost five times the allowed level.

“Public disclosure should be in place to alert the community to the location of antibiotic exposures so recreational fishers can avoid the area if they are concerned,” said John Stanfield, the secretary of the Tasmanian Amateur Sea Fisherman’s Association and an administrator of the popular RecFishTas Facebook group, which has 7800 members.

“With the salmon industry, we’ve seen a range of environmental impacts which are all too readily swept under the carpet in the name of jobs and growth or to protect the profitability of the industry.”

Currently, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA)  does not notify the public when it approves the use of an antibiotic at a fish farm lease site. It also does not announce when a monitoring report is published.

The Tasmanian salmon industry has used more than 31 tonnes of antibiotics at marine leases since 2003.

“Just like we are warned not to eat shellfish, they should warn us in real-time when the salmon industry has used antibiotics so we can make informed choices about risks.”

Sheenagh Neill

A recent antibiotic monitoring report commissioned by Tassal revealed three blue mackerel caught near salmon pens at Butlers lease, off Bruny Island, had oxytetracycline residues of 960 µg/kg, almost five times the permitted level under the Australia New Zealand Food Standard Code. All the fish had eaten feed pellets.

Asked about the issue at an election campaign media conference, Premier Jeremy Rockliff refused to commit to public notification when antibiotic use commenced at a fish farm or when a monitoring report was released. “What’s reasonable is backing jobs,” he said. “We have strengthened the accountability and transparency [of the salmon industry] through legislation, monitoring, as well as, of course, the independence of the EPA.”

Labor leader Rebecca White said transparency about aquaculture industry operation was important, but also declined to commit to public notification. “My understanding is the levels of antibiotics that were used in this instance didn’t exceed what the EPA regards as acceptable,” she said.

Tasmanian Greens leader Rosalie Woodruff said the current situation was unacceptable for recreational fishers. “The best solution to this issue would be to end all antibiotic use in salmon feed and require companies to vaccinate fish. This is what happens in other places across the world,” she said.

Independent MP for the seat of Clark, Kristie Johnston, said she supported the real-time notification of both antibiotic uses by fish farms and the publication of EPA monitoring reports.

Comment was sought from the Jacqui Lambie Network, but no response was received.

The silence of the regulator

Sheenagh Neill, a spokesperson for the community group Marine Protection Tasmania, discovered the EPA was publishing antibiotic residue monitoring reports without notifying the public in 2022. The reports revealed large amounts of antibiotics were being used, and low-level contamination had been found in wild fish caught several kilometres from the salmon pens.

Neill said the EPA had an obligation to let fishers and marine users know what was being used when it was being used. “Just like we are warned not to eat shellfish, they should warn us in real-time when the salmon industry has used antibiotics so we can make informed choices about risks,” she said.

“Being told months after the event is not only not good enough for the public users of our waterways, it’s not in keeping with world best practices nor complying with the commitment under the 10-year salmon industry plan to be more transparent.”

TARfish, a government-funded peak recreational fishing group that is chaired by former Premier Paul Lennon, told a Legislative Council inquiry into the finfish industry in 2019 that the sector had the potential to “pollute the marine environment” with antibiotics, and called for the transparent disclosure of information “in real time”.

Speaking last week, TARfish chief executive Jane Gallichan said the group had met with a representative from Tassal and would be briefed on the issue by the EPA and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. “TARfish continues to advocate for the timely and transparent release of information and strong, appropriate regulation of finfish farming that protects the health of the 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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