Dining on disaster

By Richard Flanagan, Justin Kurzel and Conor Castles-Lynch
Image of salmon meat, from the documentary Paradise Lost
What goes into the Tasmanian salmon on your plate?

If we are what we eat, what our food has eaten in turn matters. Yet it’s easier to find out what you’re feeding your dog than what you’re feeding yourself when you eat Tasmanian salmon.

Should you search the murky filth of a salmon pen to discover what constitutes the millions of feed pellets that drift down, you would quickly find yourself enveloped in a growing darkness. A veil of secrecy, green-washed and flesh-pink-rosetted, was long ago drawn over the methods and practices of the Tasmanian salmon industry, from its inexplicable influence over government processes to its grotesque environmental impacts. But the biggest secret of all is what the industry feeds its salmon.

From the beginning, the outsized environmental damage the industrial production of Tasmanian salmon creates has been outsourced to where it can’t be seen – under water – and to countries so far-off few have any idea that the problems and suffering of these countries are connected to the Tasmanian salmon industry.

In the early decades of farming, Tasmanian salmon – a carnivore in the wild – were largely fed on anchovy-based fishmeal and fish oil imported from Peru. The fishmeal industry on which the rise of the “clean and green” Tasmanian salmon industry was built left the sea surrounding Peru’s capital of anchovy fishing, Chimbote, contaminated, its coastline badly degraded and the town seriously polluted. According to Professor Romulo Loayza, a biology professor at the National University of Santa in Nuevo Chimbote, there are around 53 million cubic metres of sludge in the seas around Chimbote, residual waste from the fishmeal factories, which in some parts reach more than two metres in height.

In an investigation for Guardian Australia, Andrew Wasley observed that the Chimbote fishmeal factories’ insatiable demand for anchovy “impacted on the sea’s natural food chain, and reduced stocks of previously plentiful species fished for human consumption”. He describes Chimbote in 2008 with black smoke billowing from the fishmeal factories drifting through the streets, “obscuring vision and choking passers-by. It looked like the aftermath of a bomb.” In “one poor community … more than a dozen women and children gathered in the dusty, unpaved street to vent their anger at pollution from the fishmeal plants: they claimed they were responsible for asthma, bronchial and skin problems, particularly in children.”

The protesting Peruvian women and their sick children is one image of Tasmanian salmon that won’t appear in any glossy history of the industry’s rapid rise or its marketing of itself as environmentally responsible. Nor will that of the sea lions slaughtered by local anchovy fishermen, who saw them as competitors for a dwindling resource, their corpses scattered along a rubbish-strewn Chimbote beach, “quietly rotting in the sunshine”.

Today, Tassal claims it uses 1.73 kilograms of wild fish to make one kilogram of salmon. In other words, a lot more protein to make a lot less. Yet a major study found that 90 per cent of fish caught globally that were not used for human consumption were “food-grade or prime food-grade fish”.

Fishmeal and fish oil are the products of global supply chains of staggering complexity and opacity, subject to constant change because of weather, natural catastrophe and politics; captive to a thriving black market in which fishmeal from one country with unacceptable practices can be illegally traded to another and then on-sold as that second country’s product.

A recent report by the Netherlands-based Changing Markets Foundation linked leading global fish-feed giants BioMar and Skretting – which, along with Ridley, are the feed suppliers to Tasmania’s salmon industry – to “illegal and unsustainable fishing practices” that were “accelerating the collapse of local fish stocks”, “driving illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing” and “wreaking environmental damage around production sites”.

The salmon industry rejects such reports, claiming that its fishmeal and oil are legitimately and ethically sourced. It points to the fishmeal industry’s certification standard, known as the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization Global Standard for Responsible Supply (IFFO RS) – IFFO being the fishmeal producers’ own global association. Or it was, until last year when, in the wake of the Changing Markets Foundation report and subsequent controversy, it was rebranded as the MarinTrust Standard to distance itself from IFFO. Accordingly, the IFFO MarinTrust Standard has been condemned as “a sustainability smokescreen”. If the standard is not independent, as its critics claim, it’s difficult to believe it is trustworthy, given the conflict of interest.

Salmon farming is about creating protein by stealing it from others. Far from being a sustainable solution to the global collapse of wild fishing stocks, fish farming is driving overfishing, with an estimated 25 per cent of fish caught globally being used for aquaculture. Alassane Samba, the former head of research at Senegal’s Oceanic Research Institute, has warned that depleting fish at the bottom of the food chain “could lead to a collapse of the marine ecosystem”. In at least one case, a Namibian sardinella fishery, that nightmare is already reality, with the fishery collapsing entirely and the void left by the sardinella being filled with jellyfish – the first case in the world where fish were replaced with jellyfish. More salmon for us means less food for others. Far from feeding the world today, Tasmanian salmon corporations are thieving from its future.

This may not worry those who love to eat salmon. But what may concern them is the way fishmeal and fish oil is transported. Unless stabilised with chemicals, fishmeal and fish oil go rancid, losing their precious omega-3 oils – the source of salmon’s much-vaunted health-food status. The chemical stabiliser of choice is ethoxyquin.

Developed by Monsanto in the 1950s as a pesticide, manufactured from petrochemicals, with a range of uses including preventing rubber cracking, ethoxyquin also ensures fishmeal won’t self-combust in transport, leading the International Maritime Organization to stipulate it as one of two obligatory fishmeal stabilisers to prevent fires and explosions.

Skretting, the largest salmon feed producer in Tasmania, supplying both Tassal and Petuna, replying to questions put to them in March 2021, said their feeds “are well within” European limits of 150 mg of ethoxyquin per kilogram of feed. According to Skretting, “In Australia and New Zealand, ethoxyquin is considered generally regarded [sic] as safe.” Neither BioMar nor Ridley answered questions about ethoxyquin, and their websites are silent on the petrochemical-based additive.

It has been known for some decades that ethoxyquin could “lead to cancer in exposed animals”. Ethoxyquin has been shown to cross the blood–brain barrier of animals, can accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans, lead to chromosome breakage and is detectable in human breast milk. The eminent Dutch toxicologist Hendrik Tennekes suspected that ethoxyquin could influence the brain development of human foetuses.

The major source of ethoxyquin contamination of humans would appear to be aquaculture: a 2013 Polish study found that “farmed fish is probably the major source of EQ [ethoxyquin] and its residues for European consumers”. Research funded by the Norwegian Seafood Research Fund and major global salmon feed companies, including BioMar and Skretting, concluded that ethoxyquin “was detected in salmon fillets regardless of the amount contained in the feed”.

Victoria Bohne, a Norwegian scientist assigned by Norway’s prestigious National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research to research ethoxyquin, made European headlines in 2015 when she admitted on German television that she no longer dared to eat farmed salmon because of ethoxyquin.

According to Professor Edmund Maser of the Department of Toxicology and Pharmacology at the University of Kiel, ethoxyquin “can be mutagenic and toxic. You need to eat a lot of farmed salmon to reach those levels, but people who eat a lot of salmon can reach them. Also, think of children and people with less body weight, for them the limit is lower. My answer is that one must find alternatives.”

After a series of studies associated the chemical with a range of human health issues, in 2017 the EU banned the use of ethoxyquin as a food additive, and its use in human food is similarly banned in Australia. But the majority of Tasmanian salmon continues to be produced using feed containing ethoxyquin.

And so, to get salmon’s supposed health benefits, Australian salmon consumers have for more than three decades also been consuming ethoxyquin residue. Just as they were never confronted with images of the devastation of places like Chimbote, nor were consumers informed that the salmon they ate came tainted with the carcinogen used to transport the fishmeal and fish oil, along with PCBs and heavy metals that were concentrated in the smaller fish species used to make that fishmeal and oil.

flanagan cover

“Marine feed ingredients,” drily observes one scientific paper analysing alternative salmon feed ingredients, “traditionally used in commercial fish feeds, are the source of … persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans (PCDD/Fs), organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), as well as elements such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and fluorine.”

With ethoxyquin being kept secret from Australian consumers, the only problem the Tasmanian salmon industry had with fishmeal was cost. Fishmeal is expensive, and with salmon feed half the cost of growing salmon, any reduction in the amount of fishmeal used in salmon feed meant a reduction in production cost. And so over the last twenty years the Tasmanian salmon industry has sought to make feed cheaper by lessening the amount of fishmeal in it and sourcing protein from other food streams.

While the change from a salmon diet that was principally fishmeal-based to principally plant- and land animal-based meant the amount of ethoxyquin, POPs, PCBs and heavy metals in farmed salmon was reduced, it created several new problems. In the wake of mad cow disease – a fatal illness to humans consequent on feeding animals other dead animals – the use of discarded remnants of butchered cows, sheep and poultry in aquaculture feeds was banned in Europe. Yet in Australia it remained legal to feed remnants of slaughtered cows, sheep and chickens to salmon – so that’s what the Tasmanian salmon industry does.

The majority of the animal protein used in Tasmanian salmon feed is chicken-based. According to Skretting, 30.4 per cent of their annual total ingredients for salmon feed is chicken-derived – 10.96 per cent is poultry oil, 14.92 per cent poultry meal, and 4.52 per cent feather meal. Chicken meal was legally defined in 2015 as “prepared from … the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as heads, feet, intestines and frames”. A 2016 report by the Australian Renderers Association found that “foreign matter in poultry material can also include plucker fingers, aluminium bag clips and elastic netting/bands”. Plastic and metal, in other words, amid the macerated brains, ground-up feathers, mashed-up beaks, claws and guts of battery hens.

Would those who think they are making an ethical choice buying Tasmanian salmon do so if they knew much of it is reconstituted from the waste streams flowing from the industrial butchering of chickens?


This is an edited extract of Richard Flanagan’s Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, published by Penguin Random House Australia.

Richard Flanagan, Justin Kurzel and Conor Castles-Lynch

Richard Flanagan is the author of The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish and the Man Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Justin Kurzel is a film director. His films include Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed, True History of the Kelly Gang and the forthcoming Nitram.

Conor Castles-Lynch is a passionate documentary filmmaker based in Hobart, Tasmania. Conor co-directed the award-winning film Nus Essan Rumantschs, and has spent the past four years working in film in Tasmania.

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