Huon Aquaculture accounted for the deaths of at least three-quarters of seals killed at Tasmanian salmon farms since the start of last year, with new data showing the company released more than 8,000 underwater explosives aimed at scaring the seals.
Government data released in response to a right-to-information request revealed Huon Aquaculture, now owned by the controversial Brazilian meat company JBS, used 8,057 underwater explosives against seals in the 15 months to the end of March. The company accounted for 18 of the 23 seal deaths over the period.
Under Tasmanian laws, companies are allowed to use underwater explosives, known as “seal crackers”, which can scare seals with loud noise and a flash of light. Other authorised measures include shooting seals with fabric-coated plastic shells containing lead shot, known as bean bag rounds, and darts with blunt tips known as “scare caps”.
The data released by the Department Natural Resources and Environment showed the salmon industry has used more than 125,000 explosive devices since 2016.
Between the first and second halves of the 15 months, Tassal and Petuna slashed their use of explosive devices by more than 75%. Huon Aquaculture went in the opposite direction, increasing its use by more than 10%.
Huon Aquaculture did not respond directly when asked why its use of seal crackers remained high while the other two companies had reduced their use.
The company pointed to a January 2021 backgrounder that said “our use of crackers has increased as a result of our expansion into offshore waters in Storm Bay; additional fish in the water equals more seals. If bait fish (mackerel) schools increase, as they often do in Storm Bay and the [D’Entrecasteaux] Channel, increasing incidents of opportunistic seals attempting to breach pen perimeters occur.”
JBS its $425m purchase of completed Huon Aquaculture in mid-November 2021, fending off a rival takeover bid lodged by Tattarang, a private company owned by mining magnate Andrew Forrest. As part of its takeover campaign, JBS vowed Huon Aquaculture would “uphold the highest standards of fish health and sustainable farming practices”.
Bec Howarth, a fish farm and marine campaigner with the Bob Brown Foundation, said Huon Aquaculture’s “continued high level of use of deafening seal crackers” indicated “JBS has already broken their commitment to cause no environmental harm.”
The company did not respond directly to a question on why seal deaths on its leases accounted for such a large share of the total seal death toll.
The department said seal deaths at salmon farms could be caused by a range of factors, including entanglement in netting, being struck by vessels, using deterrents and being euthanised.
In one document released to Environment Tasmania in early 2021, government wildlife biologist Sam Thalmann wrote that salmon company estimates of seal deaths due to the use of approved deterrents were “likely a large underestimate as many seals with injury/penetrating wounds resulting from whom would leave the area and die outside the lease area.”
The latest data also revealed that neither Petuna, the smallest of the three salmon producers, nor Huon Aquaculture, used bean bag rounds against seals. Petuna reported no seal deaths on its leases. Tassal is the only salmon producer still using bean bag rounds, but its reliance on them declined over the past year.