Questions over approval of Storm Bay salmon farming | Ralph-Lauren

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There are questions about the validity of the decision to green-light one of the most significant aquaculture expansions in Tasmania’s history, with documents obtained by the ABC revealing it was made by just three sitting members of the nine-member assessment panel.

The documents also revealed the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel agreed to allow the development in Storm Bay, despite expert advice it would be impossible to separate Tasmania’s three largest salmon farming companies enough to prevent the spread of major diseases.

Tasmanian salmon companies Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna are expanding operations into Storm Bay, south of Hobart, initially to farm a combined total of 30,000 tonnes of salmon but with the potential to ramp up to 80,000 tonnes.

A draft letter from former Department of Primary Industries secretary John Whittington to Minister Guy Barnett in February 2019 revealed the Panel’s decision to recommend approval of Petuna’s Storm Bay expansion was made by just three sitting members — the chairperson Craig Midgley, the person with marine farming experience, Pheroze Jungalwalla, and the person with local government experience, Neil (Jock) Campbell.

The quorum of five was only reached because two members, whose terms had expired, sat in on the meeting — the marine resource management member Colin Buxton, and the person nominated by the Minister, Heather Chong.

Pens of salmon in the ocean at Storm Bay, Tasmania.
There are concerns about the decision to allow significant aquaculture expansion in Storm Bay.(Supplied: Huon Aquaculture)

The decision to recommend approval followed the resignation of two other panel members — biosecurity expert Barbara Nowak and environmental management expert Louise Cherrie — over concerns it was “inherently compromised” and geared toward approving “operationally convenient” proposals for the aquaculture industry.

The member with planning experience Pamela Scott abstained, and the position for the person with navigation experience was also vacant.

Regardless, the five sitting and expired members present agreed their combined expertise was adequate to make a recommendation on the development to the Minister for Primary Industries and Water, Guy Barnett.

The two expired members have since been reappointed.

The letter was redacted in full in the ABC’s Right to Information Request on the basis that it was internal deliberative information, but the documents included a link to the full, unredacted version.

It revealed the Government was relying on a 90-year-old Act, allowing a person to continue exercising the functions of an office for up to six months after the expiration of a fixed term, as the legal basis for the decision’s validity.

Decision ‘open to legal challenge’

Environment Tasmania’s Laura Kelly said her organisation was seeking legal advice.

Laura Kelly
All aspects of the aquaculture expansion were not considered by the depleted panel says Environment Tasmania’s Laura Kelly.(ABC News: Aneeta Bhole)

“It means there were only three legal chairs present when the decision to approve such an immense development as Storm Bay went through to the Minister. That’s certainly open to legal challenge,” she said.

Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said Mr Barnett needed to justify how the panel was allowed to make the decision, particularly without a biosecurity expert, she said.

“I think the Minister needs to provide the legal foundation for a panel that in our view was not properly quorate and was allowed to make a decision of such magnitude,” she said.

A headshot of Guy Barnett.
Minister for Primary Industries and Water, Guy Barnett, is satisfied with the approval process.(ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)

In the letter, Dr Whittington wrote he was satisfied the panel was properly constituted and competent when it made the determination.

Mr Barnett said the Government was confident in the advice provided by the panel.

“I am advised that the Marine Farming Review Panel was appropriately constituted and had the necessary expertise on the Review Panel at the time recommendations on all the Storm Bay proposals were made,” he said.

Risk of disease transfer in Storm Bay ‘incredibly high’

The Right to Information documents obtained by the ABC also reveal a detailed biosecurity presentation was given to the panel in April 2018, recommending a minimum 5km separation between aquaculture companies in Storm Bay to help protect against the spread of disease.

The presentation’s conclusions were that there was no separation distance that could be applied between companies to reduce the risk to zero, but a default minimum of 5km between companies would provide some protection.

“If a major disease occurs, all leases in Storm Bay would have to be considered a contiguous risk area.”

Farmed Tasmanian Salmon
Biosecurity information concluded there was risk of diseases spreading between Storm Bay salmon farms.(ABC News: David Hudspeth)

Despite the recommendation that 5km be the minimum distance between companies, the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel’s final report on Petuna’s expansion plan said that due to “spatial constraints” in Storm Bay, “a 4km separation between year classes would be a pragmatic compromise”.

Ms Kelly said she believed crucial advice to the panel had been ignored.

During Budget Estimates late last year, Mr Barnett confirmed there was no government-endorsed biosecurity plan for aquaculture in Storm Bay, but said a draft plan was being developed.

Tasmanian Greens leader, Cassy O'Connor Greens wearing glasses, smiles.
Greens leader, Cassy O’Connor, said community concerns were ignored.(Supplied: Tasmanian Greens)

Estimates was told that in the absence of that plan and the panel’s biosecurity expert, it was the Chief Veterinary Officer who provided biosecurity advice to the panel.

“Through the whole process, concerns that were raised by communities from Bruny Island to White Beach have been completely ignored.”

Mr Barnett said in a statement that the panel sought advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer, industry veterinarians and an epidemiologist.

“The panel modified plans following consideration of this advice,” he said.

“The Storm Bay plans include specific controls to allow for appropriate contemporary and future biosecurity arrangements to be imposed by Government.”


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