Institute triggers EPBC review of salmon farming to protect Maugean skate ‘Thylacine of the Sea’


The Australia Institute Tasmania’s work was critical to triggering a federal EPBC review of salmon farming in Macquarie Harbour, given new scientific evidence shows the endangered Maugean skate, a ray-like animal, is at risk of extinction due in large part to salmon farming.

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In November 2022, a mix of scientists, industry, First Nations and community stakeholders, expertly convened by Eloise Carr, director of the Australia Institute Tasmania, gathered at stunning Spring Bay Mill in Triabunna for the inaugural Tasmanian Ocean Summit.

Associate Professor Neville Barrett, from University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), told the Summit attendees about the plight of the Maugean skate, dubbing it the ‘Thylacine of the Sea’ and predicting it would be “extinct within a decade on the current trajectory.”

Just six months later, IMAS scientists warned the skate was ‘one extreme weather event away from extinction’.

Australia’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee has recommended increasing the threat level faced by the Maugean skate from endangered to critically endangered. In light of the latest information from IMAS scientists that the Maugean skate is teetering on the brink of extinction, difficult decisions need to be made.

Led by the new scientific evidence of salmon farming’s significant and detrimental impact on the skate’s habitat, the Australia Institute wrote to Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, triggering the legal review and urging her to intervene and end salmon farming in Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour, which is threatening the endangered Maugean skate.

The Environment Minister has obligations under multiple laws to act to protect the Maugean skate before it is too late

In late November 2023, the Minister announced a review of salmon farming in the Macquarie Harbour by the Federal Government, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Have your say in the review of salmon farming in Macquarie harbour >

The Maugean skate is listed as Endangered under Tasmania’s Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 and the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. One third of Macquarie Harbour is within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and the skate is one of the values of the World Heritage Area. The Australia Institute’s 10 recommendations to the Tasmanian Scalefish Fishery Rules Review are aimed at assisting species recovery and modernising management arrangements so that fishery in Macquarie Harbour is sustainable.

The Australia Institute also wrote to the Tasmanian EPA, and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, which isn’t doing enough to prevent the extinction of the endangered skate, with evidence to show why the fish farm licenses should not be renewed. Despite the clear scientific evidence of the impacts of salmon farming on the skate, the EPA renewed environmental licenses for fish farms in late November 2023.

The actions of the National Recovery Team for the Maugean skate have been woefully inadequate and demonstrate the undue influence of the salmon industry. The Recovery Team has failed to act on Australian government Conservation Advice, released in September, which clearly identifies fish farming in Macquarie Harbour as having the most detrimental impact on the threatened Maugean skate.

In response to the Institute’s research, Tasmania’s salmon fishing industry has used well-worn tactics, similar to those favoured by the tobacco and fossil fuels industries, to exaggerate its economic impact and the number of jobs the industry provides.

Both levels of government and regulators have let Tasmanians down. they have failed in their approach to adaptive management, which highlights the need or precaution in management decisions. State and federal governments were advised water quality problems were likely, but decided to allow large-scale fish farming in the Harbour regardless. This is simply not good enough.

The state government’s inaction over the issue of the endangered skate is contrary to the views of Australians on the matter, with the Institute’s research found that three in five respondents (61%) support stopping fish farming where it puts the Maugean skate at risk of extinction. Almost three in four (74%) Tasmanians want fish farms out of sheltered inshore waters, in accordance with recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into fish farming.

With news that the federal government will not pause the salmon industry while the EPBC Act reconsideration takes place, the Tasmanian salmon industry could go down in history for being linked to the extinction of a species if business as usual continues.

Australia Institute Tasmania helped put the plight of the Maugean skate on the national agenda and the issue has been covered in The Australian, The Guardian and on ABC’s flagship 730 program.

An endangered Maugean Skate in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's west coast. A unique endangered fish found only in Tasmania is surviving in just one lake, scientists have confirmed, ruling out the possibility of insurance populations being used to save the species.
AAP Image/Supplied by Jane Ruckert

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