Tasmanian seal deaths mount as Huon Aquaculture increases use of underwater explosives

Data reveals the company has used more than 8000 explosives since January 2021
 May 9, 2022
Published:  May 9, 2022
A protest in October 2021 against the JBS takeover of Huon Aquaculture. Image: Bob Burton

Huon Aquaculture – now owned by the controversial Brazilian meat company JBS – accounted for more than three-quarters of the seals killed at Tasmanian salmon farms since the start of last year.

Government data released in response to a right-to-information request revealed Huon Aquaculture used more than 8057 underwater explosives against seals in the 15 months to the end of March. The company accounted for 18 of the 23 seal deaths at salmon farms over the period.

Under Tasmanian laws, the companies are allowed to use underwater explosives, known as “seal crackers”, which can scare seals with the loud noise and flash of light. Other authorised measures include shooting seals with fabric coated plastic shells containing lead shot, known as bean bag rounds, and darts with blunt tips known as “scare caps”.

The data released by the Department Natural Resources and Environment showed the salmon industry has used more than 125,000 explosive devices since 2016.

Between the first and second halves of the 15 months, Tassal and Petuna slashed their use of explosive devices by more than 75 per cent. Huon Aquaculture went in the opposite direction, increasing its use by more than 10 per cent.

Huon Aquaculture did not respond directly to a question on why seal deaths on its leases accounted for such a large share of the total seal death toll.

Huon Aquaculture did not respond directly when asked why its use of seal crackers remained high while the other two companies had reduced their use.

The company pointed Tasmanian Inquirer to a January 2021 backgrounder that said “our use of crackers has increased as a result of our expansion into off-shore waters in Storm Bay; additional fish in the water equals more seals. If bait fish (mackerel) schools increase, as they often do in Storm Bay and the [D’Entrecasteaux] Channel, increasing incidents of opportunistic seals attempting to breach pen perimeters occur”.

JBS challenged over pledge to meet ‘highest standards’ 

JBS completed its $425 million purchase of Huon Aquaculture in mid-November 2021, fending off a rival takeover bid lodged by Tattarang, a private company owned by mining magnate Andrew Forrest. As part of its takeover campaign, JBS vowed that under its ownership, Huon Aquaculture would “uphold the highest standards of fish health and sustainable farming practices”.

Bec Howarth, a fish farm and marine campaigner with the Bob Brown Foundation, said Huon Aquaculture’s “continued high level of use of deafening seal crackers” indicated “JBS has already broken their commitment to cause no environmental harm”.

The company did not respond directly to a question on why seal deaths on its leases accounted for such a large share of the total seal death toll.

The department said seal deaths at salmon farms could be caused by a range of factors, including entanglement in netting, being struck by vessels, using deterrents, and being euthanised.

In one document released to Environment Tasmania in early 2021, government wildlife biologist Sam Thalmann wrote that salmon company estimates of seal deaths due to the use of approved deterrents were “likely a large underestimate as many seals with injury/penetrating wounds resulting from deterrents would leave the area and die outside the lease area”.

The latest data also revealed that neither Petuna, the smallest of the three salmon producers, nor Huon Aquaculture used bean bag rounds against seals. Petuna reported no seal deaths on its leases. Tassal is the only salmon producer still using bean bag rounds, but its reliance on them declined dramatically over the past year.

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.

How you can support independent Tasmanian journalism

Make a contribution
Receive news via email
Sign-Up today
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram