Pens holding tens of thousands of introduced salmon have landed in once-pristine natural ecosystems. Photo Luke Burgess/Environment Tasmania


In 1897 the English author HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, one of the first science fiction novels. Forty years later it was broadcast as an Orson Welles radio play and more recently as a Steven Spielberg movie. It's a story of the clash of two cultures: humans v Martians.


Wells claims the inspiration for his novel came from the invasion of lutruwita/Tasmania by the British, while critics of the day saw it as a statement on colonisation.


The Palawa had inhabited lutruwita since 'the beginning of time' and as animists understood that in order to survive in a place, they needed to be the custodians of that place. The two were intrinsically entwined. Imagine their sheer terror when aliens suddenly appeared out of the ether. Armed with advanced technology and an insatiable greed, it took the invaders less than 40 years to bring a culture of 60,000 years to the brink of extinction.


Even though they were hunter-gatherers, the Palawa footprint on the land was not without consequence. Fire was in their DNA and through eons of torching the place, reshaped the landscape to satisfy their needs. However, once they'd been overthrown and exiled, the landscape was suddenly reshaped to satisfy different wants.


The custodians had been replaced by future eaters.


Down here, if you're not a shade of green, you most certainly share a bed with someone who is. It's that sort of place. And that's understandable; after all it is the birthplace of the world's first Green party.


Unlike many of my mates, as a teenager I failed to answer the call to protest. Not that I didn't want to. There'd certainly been enough compelling causes – the flooding of Lake Pedder,  the damming of wild rivers, the forest wars. But all I wanted to do was go surfing. I was basically a selfish hedonist and given I managed to live the surfing lifestyle for half a century, a bloody good one at that.


I supported my addiction by being a storyteller. A filmmaker and writer – producing stories on natural history, mining, forestry and Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. As a result I learnt a lot about the consequences of pursuing wants over needs, but true to my hedonistic bent, still chose to do nothing about it.


Trading my surfboard in for a kayak, shifted my focus from the ocean to the inland wilderness. Places where the environmental wars of my youth were fought. For the next decade I explored the southwest lakes and river systems, paddling to locations seldom visited. I got to see and appreciate, not only what a truly amazing place I lived in, but how much of it had been trashed since colonisation.


Then, I was offered a job as a wilderness guide at an exclusive camp at Port Davey in the far southwest. An area only accessible by a five-day walk, a journey of unknown duration in a boat, or 50 minutes in a light aircraft. Flying to my first camp I was blown away by the industrial scale of the salmon pens in the Huon River and D'Entrecasteaux Channel. It was my 'light bulb' moment, inspiring me to join Surfrider Tasmania, and a cohort of community groups called TAMP (Tasmanian Alliance for Marine Protection).


Suddenly I'd become a salmon activist. 

Atlantic salmon are alien species to Tasmanian waters. Photo Environment Tasmania

The colonialists took an interest in salmon too, in fact anything that reminded them of the world they'd left behind. Their acute home sickness appeased by planting deciduous trees, like poplars, oaks and willows, even importing starlings, sparrows and blackbirds for their dawn chorus.

Since salmon fishing was popular back home, the Salmon Ponds were built on the banks of the Plenty River north of Hobart in 1864. Ova was collected from streams around Britain and packed in moss and charcoal for their journey to the colony. As an afterthought, a small consignment of trout ova was included.

The venture started well, the ova being successfully raised to smolt stage, but things went pear-shaped when it came time for their release. The salmon simply hightailed it to saltwater and back to Britain. Meanwhile, being a freshwater fish, the trout headed upstream, found itself in bug heaven and promptly became the ace predator of the Central Highland lake and river systems.

At the outset of the latest foray into salmon, industry was warned to avoid farming in shallow waterways with low energy flows. Warnings that went unheeded. The first lease, in the shallow Huon River, soon expanded like a cancer into the shallow D'Entrecasteaux Channel. Since then cells have popped up in Macquarie Harbour, the East Coast, Tasman Peninsula and Storm Bay.

From its initial position as a niche industry, salmon farming has morphed into an industrial giant. Now the island's biggest primary industry with a turnover near $1.5B and plans to double production by 2030. In an example of the cart leading the horse, while industry has been chasing growth, the environment can't keep up.

As a result, the industry now lacks social licence. Tasmanians want fish farming out of their waters and it's not just because of their visual pollution. With dozens of motherships and a flotilla of work boats, serenity is but a memory for many thousands of residents neighbouring fish farms.

But it's what’s happening out of sight that has the community most alarmed. Collectively the penned salmon produce more effluent than a city of one million people. And being in 'shallow water with low energy flows', if the tides don't flush it out, what does?

Mick Lawrence discussing the expansion of the Tasmanian salmon industry with Jess Coughlan while visiting the Furneaux Islands earlier this year. Photo SA Rips

The smolt are raised in flow through hatcheries on the banks of the River Derwent – upstream from the main source of Hobart's drinking water. When sampling indicated nutrient loads from the hatcheries may be contributing to outbreaks of algal blooms, taxpayers were hit with a $240 million bill for new filters to fix the problem. To put that into context, each year the industry pays around $1 million for the use of our waterways.

'World's best practice' is the industry mantra and Norway, the world's biggest farmed salmon exporter, has a practice of moving out of the ocean and onto land, of tighter environmental protocols and increasing direct tax. Which are probably the reasons why private overseas interests recently gobbled up the publicly-listed companies that previously controlled the local industry here in Tasmania, which certainly isn’t run to ‘world’s best practice.’

One of those is JBS, the world's biggest 'protein producer' owned by the Batista family of Brazil, which has a well-publicised history of bribery and corruption. They’ve expanded aggressively into the Australian meat industry and acquired Tasmania’s Huon Aquaculture in 2021. Another player is the Cooke Family of Companies, who bought Tassal last year for a cool $1.1B. Their marketing spin of 'sustainable growth' is but a red herring – 1.5kg of protein to grow 1kg of salmon is not 'sustainable growth'.

To date Surfrider's strategy has been to lobby the Tasmanian government, but as soon as we ask a difficult question, we get hit with 'commercial in confidence’ – more 'smoke and mirrors' than 'clear and transparent'. However, unlike the government, the public were keen to listen, with crew addressing public meetings around the state, including King and Flinders Island. Surveys indicate Tasmanians now want 'industry best practice' – meaning fish farms out of our waters and onto land, environmental standards strictly enforced, and a fair rate of tax paid.

However, the game has changed. Unlike public companies who have to report to government, private investors aren't bound by such scrutiny – that would be 'commercial in confidence'. So, with a government unwilling to listen and an industry suddenly controlled by foreign corporates, we're calling on the broader surfing community for help.

Heath Joske, Mick Lawrence and Dan Ross on Flinders Island back in January. The islands – along with other untouched stretches of Tasmania’s coastline – are being sized up to accommodate the growth of the state’s toxic salmon industry. Photo SA Rips

Next time you're at a deli, supermarket or sushi bar and Tasmanian salmon is on offer, consider this: the industry projects a clean/green image, yet it's toxic and unsustainable. It carries the RSPCA tick of approval, yet bombards protected seals with stun grenades and bullets. It portrays salmon as healthy, yet it contains pesticides, banned neurotoxins, and antibiotics. It claims 'best practice', yet its Macquarie Harbour leases are a 'dead zone'.

Today salmon farming is as much a social issue as environmental. It reflects not just our blind faith in growth, but an obsession for wants over needs. We've turned our backs on being custodians, only to find ourselves waist-deep in shit.

Still not convinced? Then read Toxic by Richard Flanagan, and one thing will leap out at you. When a writer of Flanagan's standing documents 240 pages of industry malpractices, you'd expect waves of wigs to swarm all over it. Yet only one short paragraph has ever been redacted.

In War of the Worlds, the aliens lost, defeated by their failure to adjust to our environment.

Pens holding tens of thousands of introduced salmon have landed in once-pristine natural ecosystems. Photo Luke Burgess/Environment Tasmania


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