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Salmon: Clean, green super-food or battery hens of the sea?

By Conor Duffy for 7.30 Report and Selina Bryan | ABC News Australia

The $350 million salmon industry is being criticised for selling itself as clean and green.

The $350 million salmon industry is being criticised for selling itself as clean and green. (ABC: David Scherer)

It's being served up on plates all the way from Sydney to Shanghai and the entrepreneurs driving the Tasmanian salmon industry have predicted it will become a billion dollar industry.

It is amazing growth for a product that only started in Tasmania 20 years ago, when the first Atlantic salmon eggs were shipped in and hatched in local waters.

Farmed Tasmanian salmon is on its way to becoming the most popular table fish in the country and is now worth $350 million a year.

Salmon farmers have relied on marketing Tasmania's clean, green image to spearhead their assault on mainland and overseas markets.

Advertisers use phrases like "grown in the pristine oceans off Tasmania" and the industry has acknowledged that this association has been crucial to salmon's success.

But a growing number of critics say the marketing is a sham and that the waters of a salmon farm are more likely to be swirling with chemicals and waste.

A battle is being waged over whether salmon are a clean, green omega-rich super food or the battery hens of the sea.

Canadian environmentalist Dr David Suzuki is one of the industry's detractors.

Three years ago he fired the first shot in the salmon wars, berating the National Press Club for eating Tasmanian salmon during his speech.

"You all sat and chowed down on farmed salmon and obviously you don't give a shit about what you're putting into your body," he said.

"You know what a farmed salmon is, it's filled with toxic chemicals."

Dr Suzuki is continuing his campaign against farmed salmon, here and in Canada.

Industry fights back

The allegations are fiercely contested by the Tasmanian salmon farmers who assure customers their product is the way of the future.

In Australia, by far the biggest player is Tassal and the company's CEO and Managing Director Mark Ryan is one of the key voices fighting for the industry.

"There are always critics out there and I guess our test will be ultimately whether we are sustainable or not, and we're continuing to invest to make sure that we are," Mr Ryan said.

The industry giant has a market share of about 60-65 per cent and this year will produce about 17,000 tonnes of salmon.

Mark Ryan hopes to almost double that production by 2015 and can even see salmon challenging the much-loved steak in the future.

"We'd say it's the number one fish at the moment. It's definitely the number one aquaculture fish," he said.

"Moving forward, when you've got a billion dollar industry, you take a fair bit of the protein share out of the general protein market."

But a number of environmental critics say that growth would be devastating for the world's oceans.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has been one of the most persistent critics.

Marine campaigner Ben Birt says the society has consistently urged environmentally-conscious consumers to say no to Tasmanian farmed salmon.

"In order to feed the salmon to grow them you need to catch a lot of wild fish and, each year, millions of tonnes of smaller fish like anchovy and sardine are removed from the sea in order to be fed to the salmon," he said.

"This has potentially huge implications for the wild ecosystems."

The society says as many as four kilograms of wild fish need to be caught to raise one kilogram of Tasmanian salmon.

Mark Ryan from Tassal says the industry is working on reducing the amount of wild caught fish in salmon feed.

He believes calls for a boycott are unfair.

"I think that's a very uninformed view," he said.

"Again, I've never hosted them [the AMCS] on any of our farms, nor talked to any of them personally so I guess when you're using maybe some overseas data to assess a local industry that can be a bit naive."

Antibiotic fears

But perhaps the biggest PR problem for the industry has been its use of antibiotics to treat its fish.

As many as 50,000 salmon are farmed inside each pen and keeping disease from spreading in these tight confines is a constant battle.

Industry figures show that from 2006 to 2008 almost 18 tonnes of the antibiotics Oxytetracycline and Amoxicillin (also used to treat people) were fed to Tasmanian salmon.

The industry stresses that it flushes and tests the fish before they are sold to ensure there are no traces of antibiotics when they arrive on plates.

However, critics like Tasmanian Greens MP Kim Booth says wild fish can eat the antibiotics which are given to the salmon in fish pellets.

"If they don't deal with the issues of antibiotics and they don't deal with the issues of the effluent that falls off these things into the bottom of the ocean they will end up ... they're being called the battery hens of the seas," he said.

Figures obtained exclusively by the ABC suggest that the great majority of the antibiotics were used by Tassal.

The other large player in the industry is Huon Aquaculture, which has a 30 per cent share.

Huon Aquaculture Chief Scientist David Cahill supplied a year-by-year breakdown of antibiotic use between 2006 and 2008.

The figures show the company used about two tonnes during that three year period and its owner Peter Bender says the company has been antibiotic free for 18 months.

"In the case of our company we haven't used antibiotics for about 18 months, and when we do need to use them it's on a case-by-case basis," Mr Bender said.

A spokesman for the only other player in the salmon industry, Petuna, said the company had never used antibiotics.

That would suggest Tassal used almost 16 tonnes of antibiotics.

Tassal boss Mark Ryan refused to supply figures on his company's antibiotic use to the ABC but said they were only used on animal welfare grounds to keep the fish healthy.


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