Bays of Dismay 3: East Coast Tasmania: Okehampton Bay

Before the Poop Soup Cometh

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Quiet day at Triabunna in Spring Bay.  The Tasmanian Seafoods buildings and the wood chip mill are visible in the distance.

I’m writing in defence of the ocean and the shore, not something I’d anticipated when I first set out to explore the coastline. Back then, the idea was to log the diversity and beauty of all that I saw, but in the 21st century it’s not so simple.

That’s why this blog is a Tasmanian take on that ubiquitous tale of industry and the powers that be colluding to rob the public of their common wealth while holding out jobs as a carrot and blindsiding the environment that sustains us.

But carrots are quickly nibbled away and environments don’t always recover.

It may be uncool in the strange climate we inhabit these days, but I would go so far as to frame this story as one of elder abuse. That elder is Mother Earth who nourishes billions of people (and all those other species we largely couldn’t give a rat’s arse about). The irony, of course, is that each time she’s bashed we’re bashed too except so many of us have become  anaesthetised to what’s happening.  We forget that

we are the protectors,

We are the thing it needs protection from

We are that which needs protecting

(Quoted in Murphy, 2012)


Okehampton Bay: Big Fish Snaffles up the Lure of Profit and Expansion

The desire to get bigger, to generate more profit and to be the best has Tassal, a Tasmanian salmon producer, angling to put 28 pens in Okehampton Bay on the East Coast. There will be 800,000 fish at full capacity. That’s a whopping amount of poop, streaks ahead of that expelled by the whole of Triabunna (the closest town) after endless nights of food poisoning and infinite days of giardia.* I’m sure you can easily visualise the soup of nutrients that will combine with the currents and the tides flowing into Okehampton Bay and along Mercury Passage of which it is a part.

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The view from the lease: Maria Island, the mountain is Bishop and Clerk.

Whales migrate through here, dolphins and seals regard it as their hunting grounds and habitat and divers collect abalone from these ostensibly  pristine waters  for the export market.

Tasmania benefits from its clean and green brand, but Tassal has recently been trashing it for themselves and for others. The company has acquired  a reputation for being a heavy users of antibiotics, for overstocking, for damaging the sea floor in Macquarie Harbour at a distance further than anticipated out from their pens.  They’re also responsible for a significant amount of debris that washes up on the shorelines.  And this is a shame.  Tasmania needs clean and green.  It needs sustainable industry.  It needs long term, permanent jobs.  I’d like to be honouring them for their contribution to the economy but the cost to the environment is just too high.

Their lease in Okehampton Bay is 80 hectares and stretches to within 530m off Lords Bluff, it’s northern headland.  So close, and not much room left for boating.

It’s 700m from the shore at the other extreme.  And it’s 7 km from the Maria Island Marine Reserve, which is seriously ouch.   The island is a much loved national park. There’s a marine reserve there too, and it’s one of Tasmania’s most iconic views, visible from different points along the east coast south of Freycinet Peninsula.

Understandably, Tasmanians who have warm memories of blissful days on this vehicle free island rich in wildlife and 360 degrees of scenic beauty, are dismayed. For some of the sailors I’ve discussed this with, it makes for a waterway ruined. Tassal says it isn’t fish farming in Mercury Passage (Tassal Sustainability report 2016) and here’s the actual quote:

When investigating potential sites for expansion of farming, Tassal will examine various sites, some which may be suitable from an environmental and social perspective, and some that are not. Mercury Passage, located adjacent to Okehampton Bay, is one such example. We will not farm in Mercury Passage. A rigorous stakeholder engagement process is undertaken to ensure our social licence to operate.’

But this is downright sneaky. Mercury Passage includes bays and embayments, of which Okehampton is one. It’s part of the passage’s shoreline after all!  That statement, plus a temperature graph without a key in Sustainability report 2016, the debacle in  Macquarie Harbour with no apparent contingency plan beyond charming the regulator were enough to make me particularly curious about this fishy business, the focus of local debate and protest.

Actually, one other thing.  The local council  claims that the last time Okehampton was pristine was ‘when Aboriginal people fished there in canoes’ (The Mercury, 23 Nov 2016), so here’s what it was like when the French explorer Peron visited in 1802:  “The marine animals were very abundant on these shores, and we saw huge troops of dolphins, cetaceans and innumerable legions of seals” he wrote ( Plomley, 1983:72).  But hey – isn’t that how we want the oceans to be?

A similar abundance of seals was seen around Ile des Phoques [Island of the Seals] in 1987. (Ranson & Brown, 1987). And the Maria Island National Park and the Ile  des Phoques Nature Reserve Management Plan 1998 states that around Maria Island there is still a rich marine flora and fauna representative of a variety of Tasmanian east coast habitats (Edgar 1981). That’s why a stretch of coastal water  around the north western shore was added as a marine extension to the Park.  And it’s also considered the most significant representation of the Maugean biogeographic province reserved in Tasmania (Kriwoken, 1991).

The plan notes extensive seagrass beds which act as fish nursery areas.  According to locals, sharks breed here too. Tassal, heedless of the precautionary principle and disrespecting the possibility of damage, are shrugging off known unknowns, have experiments up their sleeve and will  ‘monitor’ what happens to this environment.

So, regardless of their poor record in Macquarie Harbour (and IMHO the D’Entrecasteaux) they’re telling us they respect the environment (only not as much as profit) and are asking us to trust them   I really, really want to.  But I think Mother Earth is up for another bashing.


Seeing It for Myself

I’d Google Earthed Okehampton Bay, checked it on maps, viewed the Tassal lease on paper, read reports (see below) until I could no longer see straight, but as I’m not particularly familiar with Triabunna and Spring Bay (although they once provided the yacht I was on safe harbour from a storm) I thought it would be insightful to go and actually see the lease so I knew what I was writing about.

Just as the kayak was going up on the roof rack, a friend who is also concerned about Tassal’s expansion plans rang to say he’d arranged for me to go out on a yacht to  view the lease. ‘You’ll see much more of it this way,’ he said.

So on one of those stunning winter days when there is no breeze and the sky is impeccably blue, the geo, the dogs and I stepped onto one of those ‘I wish it was mine’ sort of yachts and, with its equally concerned owners, motored out passed Bricky Point and Horseshoe Shoal, Sappho Spit, Windlass Bay and Point Home.  Once around that headland  we were into Okehampton Bay.

But as we crossed Spring Bay we passed by the shed that had once housed fishmeal, causing a stink, literally. We passed the Tasmanian Seafoods building and the jetty where the super trawler would have been based if community outrage had not put a halt to this massive fishing trawler’s plans to operate in Tasmanian waters.  The concern then was overfishing.  The new concern is overstocking.

Tassal have planned a long jetty here and a start has been made. It means the local yachties need to roll over because one of the racing buoys has been a fixture here, so the jetty means a course change. This may not seem important if you don’t sail, but it does demand that one community gives up the rights it has enjoyed for a company project destined to use the common wealth for its own profit.  Racing here is a pleasurable activity, avoiding large boats is not.  What offset is Tassal offering, I wonder?

Just a hop across the bay’s entrance there’s still the old wood chip infrastructure.  It used to provide employment for Triabunna.   A tourism venture is  planned here but if Tassal is given the go ahead then noise, lights and visual impact could be problematic.

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Triabunna wood chip mill.  A tourist venture is planned for this site

All the Profligate Beauty

On this perfect winter afternoon Mercury Passage shimmered blue and silver and Bishop and Clerk stood tall against the sky while the dogs snoozed on deck and we all chatted.  No aquaculture wins beauty points. Spring Bay Seafoods, Tassal’s new partner, farms in this vicinity too but it has struggled because warmer waters  have caused algal blooms and DST [Diarrhetic Shellfish Toxin] disease.

Tassal is not concerned. They are taking over an existing salmon lease never farmed because the original owner did the monitoring and concluded that for a cold water species the water would be too warm. Tassal reckon that they’ve monitored the area and the water here is as cool as the waters in some of their other leases. This is a surprising and convenient discovery, as East Coast waters are considered warmer than those down south  and this last summer many tropical fish found there way down here, inadvertently stuck in the East Australian current, which is nosing its way further south than it has been inclined to travel before.

As we rounded the headland and Okehampton Bay came into view I was thinking about how salmon producers state that the ocean’s resources are fast running out, and they are therefore  providing a community benefit. But as the oceans succumb to acidification, microplastics and warming, so will salmon. Also, it’s beginning to seem that fish farming with its explosive expulsion of nutrients locally accelerates the ocean’s distress.  It seems to me it would be better by far better for us as a species with our habits of overconsumption and waste, to focus our attention on ocean health and behaviour modification so that the ecosystems we depend on continue to sustain us. And their argument is all a bit of a furphy really, because when it comes to salmon farming wild fish still end up down the gullets of farmed salmon by innocently swimming into pens or ending up  ground into food pellets.

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Okehampton Bay: endangered panorama


Tassal, we could see, that beautiful afternoon, is leaping enthusiastically into developing this lease. The lease marker buoys are in, pens are being developed and we were gobsmacked by how huge this lease is in the landscape. It  stretches out across the entrance to the bay and deep into it, appearing to shrink the dimensions of the coastline.  Truly, it’s scary vast!

Okehampton Trip - the buoy _.jpg
Lease marker.  That’s Home Point in the distance and the Okehampton shoreline extends out to the right. The lease extends in toward the shore.

The skipper put the boat in neutral and we gazed sombrely at the loveliness of the mainland and the Maria Island coasts.  We watched the ripples of baitfish on the water, seagulls so full they look laboured taking off.  Okehampton’s beach is enjoyed by locals in summer, our companions said.   I turned to look at Maria Island.  It looks so close here; you can see Darlington. No worries, according to Tassal. Tourists love to visit fish farms. (Who are these peculiar people, I had to wonder.  It’s like paying to visit a battery hen farm, is it not?) And I’m not disputing that people are keen to visit big black pens, but is that not truly bizarre?

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Lords Bluff (left) and Maria Island


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Pens in progress. (I had to adjust this photo to make them apparent.)

Tassal say that 5 independent studies (2006-2009) suggest that nutrients  can occur out to 500m from the source.  I don’t believe in a fluid environment that nutrients screech to a halt at the 500m mark. Look at the way litter finds its way independently across oceans -airoplane wings, for heaven’s sake – and how nutrients consumed are transported to other reefs inside avian and piscean bellies.  Tassal’s big dump may well contain antibiotics, if they don’t get their act on and stop this bad behaviour.  Good luck whales.  Good luck dolphins, seals and birds, in avoiding entanglements and antibiotics.  Good luck all you other species we don’t really give a rat’s ho hum about either but are destined to encounter poop soup.

To counter watery rises in temperature, Tassal are breeding heat tolerant salmon and will experiment with integrative farming, growing seaweeds, urchins (both feral and native) and mussels beside the pens to sop up nutrients and help out the reefs. Who knows, perhaps they’ll introduce their brand new but not adequately tested waste management system, developed belatedly and in a hurry (reactively, in other words) when nutrients from their pens in Macquarie Harbour spilled past the scientific estimates of the impact zone.   It’s success is still questionable. And again, if only all this were possible without an unsustainable impact.

But Tassal, it’s not!

I hope like hell that this farm doesn’t go ahead.  Worse case scenario, I hope like hell that integrative farming is the success Tassal expects it to be.  But it’s got to be a definite yes before many Tasmanians accept the notion.  At the moment it seems more like fingers crossed.

When I talked about this issue with friends, I discovered a growing distrust about decisions made behind closed doors. The fact that DPIPWE and Tassal share a building in the city centre leads to a perception of a snug relationship, the kind of relationship that at least one of its competitors seems concerned gives them preferential treatment.  Huon Aquaculture are taking the regulator to court for not heeding scientific advice and mismanaging stocking limits in Macquarie Harbour with devastating consequences for the environment.  Tassal have jumped in to support the regulator.


Around Spring Bay

On our return trip we headed across Spring Bay towards the Eastcoaster Resort. Close by a proposed 350 mm water pipe will enter the bay, heading out and around to Okehampton Bay and if you’re wondering why a water pipe, fresh water is needed to wash down salmon in order to prevent disease. But the East Coast is drought prone. To support Tassal (as well as a golf course and potentially some farmers), the Glamorgan Spring Bay Council is planning to build dam. The dam will be on the property of two council staff, a lucrative arrangement. But Tassal will have a long wait to get this water and let’s hope the rains fall.  Let’s hope the promise of additional water to the community holds good and it’s not the community sacrificing water to Tassal, kind of easy to imagine.

And for what? This company turns over a huge profit already. It’s an industry roughly thirty years old.   They don’t yet know their full impact on the environment. Far better for them to perfect their techniques rather than expecting the planet to accept getting whacked while they work things out.

For a start they could take their fish farms out of bays and out of sheltered waters and leave the East Coast alone.  They could work towards minimising  their oceanic footprint with real integrity so that they stop impacting on the disappearing species all about us.

Socially, this farm has split the community. Jobs are needed here, no one disputes this, and with a park on their doorstep and  tourism on the rise, Triabunna could enhance its appeal as a choice destination. That’s one of the reasons those opposed to the fish farm believe the site is inappropriate, that the environmental impacts will be significant and that this is salmon farming on the edge.

This from the EPA’s own website:


The Tasmanian salmon industry is one of Australia’s largest and most valuable aquaculture industries. Increased sea surface temperatures may present challenges for the production of this cool-water farmed species as they are currently farmed near the upper thermal limits of their optimal growing temperature. A temperature rise of 3°C may result in severe stress to Tasmanian salmon. Warmer temperatures are also likely to increase outbreaks of disease in aquaculture operations and changes to rainfall and changes in salinity, nutrients and sediments may also have a negative impact. (EPA, 2017)

Let’s Grow Tasmania’s social media and television campaign from LGTF (see video) began in late December 2016 depicting a fisherman defecating over the side of a boat, claiming “farming 800,000 salmon in Okehampton Bay is about the same as 10,000 people taking a dump in the bay every day”.

That’s a hell of a lot of poop soup.

Mother Earth is drowning in our waste. We’re throttling her.

So hand’s off Okehampton Bay.


Some further reading:

For the planning documents relating to Okehampton Bay, check this DPIPWE page.

Salmon Farming Operations Okehampton Bay: report of the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel.

Report for Glamorgan Spring Bay Council: Prosser Plains Raw Water Scheme

Tea Tree Rivulet Dam.

(A Google search on Prosser Plains raw water will produce several reports)

Woodruff, R. 2016.  Glamorgan Spring Bay Council’s very secret business. Tasmanian Times 22 Dec 2016

Rea, W. 2017 Social licence? Doesn’t look like it. Tasmanian Times 24 April 2017

Kelly, L. 2017. Tassal’s contempt for due process. Tasmanian Times. 20 May 2017

The Four Corners program that kicked off significant community concern is also worth watching.

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