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