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


Originally published in The Canberra Times on November 25, 2023

‘Thylacine of the sea’ at risk of extinction this summer if salmon farming doesn’t cease in Macquarie Harbour

Last week I attended the Tasmanian Ocean Summit, the second one hosted by the Australia Institute. Much like the rest of our natural environment our oceans are in big trouble thanks to climate change and other pressures like fish farming and over-fishing. Sadly, both governments and industry are using the same greenwashing tactics to avoid what needs to be done.

Waving around dodgy economic modelling and exaggerated jobs figures has long been a favourite and effective tactic of the mining industry and now the salmon industry has taken up the same tactics with enthusiasm to avoid regulation. But just as concerning as the abuse of economic modelling is the sweeping move to financialise the protection of nature with markets and ‘private investment’ as another means to sidestep regulation and government spending. More on that later.

The salmon industry is in the spotlight right now because of its direct impact on an endangered species called the Maugean skate. Known as the ‘thylacine of the sea’, the skate is an endangered ray-like animal found only in Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour.

Scientists from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) warned the Maugean skate is ‘teetering on the brink of extinction’ and in May this year scientists took the extraordinary step of releasing research mid-project in order to sound the alarm that urgent action was required.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has pledged no new extinctions on her watch. So, the Australia Institute and Equity Generation Lawyers wrote to the Minister, laying out the new scientific evidence of the impacts of fish farming on water quality to trigger a review of the EPBC decision that allowed largescale fish farming in Macquarie harbour.

The Commonwealth released Conservation Advice that could not be clearer: salmon farming is the problem.

While hydro-electric dam releases and gillnetting also impact the skate, fish farming is the primary cause of oxygen depletions that have led to the skate’s population almost halving since 2014. Minister Plibersek wrote to Tasmanian Premier Rockliff warning that salmon farming needs to be ‘eliminated or significantly reduced’ in Macquarie Harbour.

The Tasmanian government is so far standing by the salmon industry citing its jobs figures and economic contribution to the state. Just like the fossil fuel industry likes to wildly exaggerate its jobs figures, the salmon industry has claimed that a third or up to half of jobs on Tasmania’s West Coat are linked to salmon. The modelling has never been published, and estimates appear to be based on methods criticized by the ABS and the Productivity Commission as being regularly “abused”.

Australia Institute research shows the salmon industry employs few people and pays little tax. ATO data shows the three main salmon companies sold over $7 billion worth of fish but paid just $51 million in corporate tax over the last nine years. Salmon farming operations appear to have paid zero tax in the last three years for which data is available. In terms of employment, 99.3% of Tasmanian do not work in the salmon industry. That’s not to say even a small number of jobs are not important, obviously they are. But few jobs are so important as to be worth the extinction of a whole species.

There is an opportunity to state regulators to do the right thing too. All licences for marine farming in Macquarie Harbour are set to expire on 30 November 2023.

The EPA and Department of Natural Resources have before them compelling scientific evidence and legal advice demonstrating clear grounds to deny the renewal of existing licences when they expire. If they are renewed, both regulators will have to explain why economic modelling is given more weight than science.

The fact is that neoliberalism and financial markets can’t and won’t save our endangered species from extinction or protect their habitat. Markets do not value ecosystems or endangered species. The NSW biodiversity market is an ongoing disaster and land clearing continues unbated. The argument isn’t ideological. It is that public goods such as ‘the environment’ and the ecosystems within it simply doesn’t meet the economic principles of profit maximisation.

The Department of climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water’s describes the work the government is doing to restore and protect the natural resources that underpin our economy and community “through various market-based approaches and frameworks”.

These ‘various market-based approaches’ include the federal government’s carbon market, sovereign green bonds, a new sustainable finance framework and, of course, Green Wall Street: the government’s nature repair market. All being promoted despite a complete absence of economic or environmental justification, and all while the government continues to approve and subsidise the industries doing the damage.

As the old adage goes, markets know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. You can’t put a price on things that are invaluable. If Koala habitat is valued at a certain price by the market, what’s to stop a mining billionaire from deciding it’s a price they are willing to pay in order to open their next gas field or coal mine?

In order to save marine species like the Maugean skate, or protect other endangered species on land, we must protect what’s left of their habitat, not ask the market to set a reasonable price to demolish it.

If saving Australia’s collapsing ecosystems is left to the market, there will be a price on the head of every endangered species and habitat in the country. And if the federal or state government doesn’t intervene, salmon farming could wipe out a species that has survived since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Some argue that blowing up Juukan Gorge for more iron ore or wiping an entire species out for some more farmed fish is just the ‘cost of doing business’, but in reality it’s the cost of relying on markets, instead of our parliaments, to determine what is profitable and what is precious.

Between the Lines Newsletter

The biggest stories and the best analysis from the team at the Australia Institute, delivered to your inbox every fortnight.

You might also like