CHARLES WOOLEY

The protest about salmon farm ex­pan­sion in Nor­folk Bay re­minds Charles of the 1980’s Franklin River block­ade.

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - UPFRONT -

Events this week took me back to De­cem­ber 14, 1982, when I was a re­porter cov­er­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tal protest on the Gor­don River in South­west Tas­ma­nia. In the early dawn of a glo­ri­ous West Coast day, I was in an ABC he­li­copter trav­el­ling up­river and track­ing a flotilla of protest ves­sels in­tent on blockad­ing the dam site just be­low the junc­tion with the Franklin River.

It was a spec­tac­u­lar event and a huge story, lead­ing na­tional tele­vi­sion news bul­letins that night and mak­ing all the front pages the next morn­ing. The events I wit­nessed that day would swell like the wa­ters of the mighty river it­self and soon change the course of his­tory.

Last Sun­day, 36 years later, on a cold and grey morn­ing I found my­self bounc­ing across the windy wa­ters of Nor­folk Bay in the South East to re­port on an­other en­vi­ron­men­tal protest.

I was aboard the 27ft mo­tor­boat “Mr. Flat­head”, one in a flotilla of about 70 ves­sels protest­ing against salmon farm­ing which is to­day ev­ery bit as con­tro­ver­sial as were hy­dro dams back in the 1980s, per­haps even more so.

For most peo­ple hy­dro dams and wilder­ness were re­mote, ge­o­graph­i­cally as well as no­tion­ally. Big Salmon is dif­fer­ent be­cause Tas­ma­ni­ans are a salt­wa­ter peo­ple and salmon farm­ing is hap­pen­ing right in their faces in their back­yard. They can mea­sure its ef­fects in their favourite and tra­di­tional recre­ational places in a way they couldn’t ob­serve the grad­ual oblit­er­a­tion of re­mote wilder­ness lakes and rivers. For most peo­ple I met at the flotilla protest it was a case of “I’m not a gree­nie but ...”

Most had never been to a protest be­fore. When the ABC re­porter trav­el­ling with me on Mr. Flat­head recorded her piece to cam­era she de­scribed the par­tic­i­pants as en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. Mark Dun­can, the skip­per of the boat and one of the lead­ing or­gan­is­ers didn’t like the term. She was asked whether she would mind call­ing them lo­cals and she obliged and did a sec­ond take.

Af­ter­wards he told me: “Mate I’m not a bloody gree­nie tree-hug­ging feral. I’m just a knock­about bloke who runs Mr. Flat­head Tours, a recre­ational fish­ing busi­ness. I’m just pro­tect­ing my patch. I’m a lo­cal.”

That says so much about what is dif­fer­ent this time round. For most peo­ple the great global en­vi­ron­men­tal ar­gu­ments about cli­mate and sus­tain­abil­ity of­ten seem ab­struse and aca­demic whereas the fight for Nor­folk Bay and all the other Big Salmon sites around the Tas­ma­nian coast is per­sonal. I met peo­ple from all over the state. What they lack in worldly po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence they make up for in anger and lo­cal knowl­edge. They know their own wa­ters and fish­stocks in­ti­mately and their con­cerns are un­likely to be as­suaged by as­sur­ances from the con­sul­tants hired by the big com­pa­nies.

In a paid ad­ver­tise­ment in this news­pa­per last Sat­ur­day, on the eve of the flotilla protest, Huon Aqua­cul­ture an­nounced it was able to va­cate its Nor­folk Bay site early. Huon con­firmed that quar­an­tin­ing fish in its Nor­folk Bay lease had been to “en­sure that we did not risk spread­ing Pilchard Orthomyx­ovirus to ju­ve­nile salmon stocked by the in­dus­try across the Huon re­gion.” This might be rea­son­ably trans­lated as “we thought they might be in­fected so just in case we were keep­ing them well away, in your bay. But now we’re off so there’s noth­ing to see here.’

POMV, which killed more than a mil­lion farmed salmon in Mac­quarie Har­bour this year, is also known as fish her­pes. That’s an un­ap­petis­ing term that the protesters are threat­en­ing to take to the Syd­ney fish mar­kets. There is no known ev­i­dence that her­pes can spread from fish to hu­mans but as we saw from the nee­dle-in-thes­traw­berry dis­as­ter, con­sumers are eas­ily spooked. This con­flict could be­come a pub­lic re­la­tions de­ba­cle with im­pli­ca­tions be­yond Tas­ma­nian shores.

In Sat­ur­day’s ad­ver­tise­ment, Huon an­nounced, “POMV is not a threat to na­tive fish as the dis­ease does not trans­fer to other fish”. How­ever, in Au­gust this year the Tas­ma­nian En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency con­firmed, “POMV trans­ferred from wild pilchards into the salmon and from salmon to salmon and po­ten­tially salmon to pilchards” but they pointed out there was no ev­i­dence other species bar­ri­ers had been crossed. Let’s all keep our fish fin­gers crossed on that one.

The day be­fore the flotilla sailed I was not rel­ish­ing the as­sign­ment. The wind was gust­ing up to 50km/h and it was im­pos­si­ble to stand on my deck on Carl­ton Beach. The sea was so an­gry I re­treated to the chemist to stock up on sea­sick­ness med­i­ca­tion. The or­gan­is­ers had been hop­ing for 200 boats from all around the state. That was never go­ing to hap­pen. The same Tas­ma­nian weather gods, which ear­lier this year had wrecked the fish pens, now seemed to be on the side of Big Salmon.

As it turned out for the flotilla, con­di­tions were lumpy but not so bad for a spring day on Tas­ma­nia’s south­ern coast. I am new to Nor­folk Bay but could read­ily see why the lo­cals love it so much.

A broad ex­panse of shal­low wa­ter sur­rounded on three sides by cliffs and beaches with some is­lands thrown in and on a sunny day, the purest turquoise wa­ters. Ac­cord­ing to Mark Dun­can, bet­ter known lo­cally as Mr. Flat­head, it is par­adise. “Mate this is my patch’, he told me. “I went to Clarence High School. My par­ents had a shack here and they took me out on the wa­ter with hook, line and sinker and taught me how to catch flat­head. Now I make a liv­ing do­ing that for my clients. There’s thou­sands of peo­ple like me down the south­ern beaches and we are not go­ing to give up this fan­tas­tic play­ground with­out a hell of a fight.”

You’ll re­mem­ber how the Franklin River was saved not in Tas­ma­nia but in Can­berra. There’s a lot of anger and frus­tra­tion across Tas­ma­nia’s coastal com­mu­ni­ties and with a Fed­eral Elec­tion early next year it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the lo­cals vote. The Tas­ma­nian Lib­er­als sup­port Big Salmon while La­bor sits on its hands. The Greens should be a good fit but their Left-wing po­lit­i­cally cor­rect so­cial agenda rules them out with down-to-earth work­ing folk. The com­mu­ni­ties are now think­ing of field­ing their own can­di­dates.

But is Can­berra ready for Sen­a­tor Flat­head?

Protesters in a flotilla that cir­cled Huon Aqua­cul­ture's salmon pens at Nor­folk Bay. Pic­ture: LUKE BOW­DEN

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