Review: Toxic by Richard Flanagan

When I bought this short book, shortly after its surprise release in the weeks leading up to the Tasmanian election, the Launceston bookseller promised me I’d never eat salmon farmed in Tasmania again. It is certainly a book that provokes such a visceral, immediate reaction, as I imagine Silent Spring must have done in the 1960s, or more recent exposes of farming. It is released alongside a documentary co-directed Justin Kurzel and Conor Castles-Lynch. Toxic is a deep dive into everything that is wrong with Tasmania’s salmon industry. And it does seem to be everything. From pollution to politics, Flanagan’s portrayal of the industry is of one almost irredeemably broken.

His investigation starts in 2002, when he first made a noise complaint about the operations of the salmon industry in the waterway near his shack on Bruny Island. This was successful, but when the noise returned three years later Flanagan and the community found themselves seemingly powerless against business and government, beginning a fifteen-year fight that “none of us wanted to fight. We wanted the beauty and happiness of our worlds to continue”. In that time he watched marine life vanish and algae and jellyfish take over his beloved waterways. He writes that this book was borne of shame, that he “had failed to see what was apparent”.

It is a painful read. I grew up enjoying the spectacular natural landscape of Tasmania’s south east, particularly Bruny Island. It is terrible to read of the environmental changes that have been wreaked in the years since I have been there. I was shocked, looking at satellite images, to sea the alien circles of fish pens just offshore of South Bruny National Park, one of the most wonderful parts of the world. And it is damning to read Flanagan’s judgement:

The problem, finally, wasn’t the industry or government, but us … It was we who believed the industry made us more prosperous, when everywhere everyone knew someone whose life had been impoverished.

Noise pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. Chapter by chapter Flanagan explores the environmental and social impacts of the expansion of the salmon industry. Key to these impacts are the numbers of salmon kept in their underwater cages. The more salmon, the more fish faeces and uneaten fish feed falling down onto the sea floor below – the equivalent of four times the state’s sewage. Industry best-practice suggests that these cages need to be in deeper waters with currents that will flush away this pollution. But Flanagan reveals that the Tasmanian government ignored the advice of Norwegian consultants (the country that invented industrial farmed salmon) and began building farms in Tasmania’s shallow and still coastal waters in the 1980s.

The waste from fish farms – effectively fertiliser – causes algal and jellyfish blooms, and leaves barrens on the ocean floor. In one well-documented case (that saw one of the salmon corporations take the government to court for failure to regulate another), the salmon industry has left Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast ruined. The waste may even reactivate heavy metal pollution in Tasmania’s waterways. The fish hatcheries situated inland threaten drinking water supplies. Because Tasmania’s seas are warmer than Atlantic salmon are adapted to (and rapidly getting warmer), the salmon must be traumatically “bathed” (30,000 fish were killed in a 2018 bathing accident) and fed antibiotics to avoid disease, contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance. The feed the fish are given – these days mostly soy-based – contributes to Amazon deforestation and Indigenous dispossession. They are fed synthetic chemicals to dye their flesh pink. Seals are “bombed” to stop them eating the salmon. “Give the people loaves and hummus, not a salmon cutlet” Flanagan writes.

So much for the biological and environmental horror show. Flanagan also shows how the three Tasmanian salmon corporations – Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna in order of size – have grown so powerful they are effectively beholden to no one. The body notionally designed to have oversight of industry developments is no more than a rubber stamp. Those who cross the industry are threatened and silenced.

As horrific as what Flanagan describes is, it must surely be little worse than other industrial commodities – think of scandals in fast fashion, technology and every type of industrial farming. The urgency though comes from the industry’s plans to expand and double production by 2030, plans apparently to be finalised this year. The industry also trades off Tasmania’s clean, green image and it and government consistently claim “world’s best practice”, which Flanagan systematically dismantles.

At its heart, the tragedy of the Tasmanian salmon industry is regulatory failure, an unsexy topic that nonetheless explains so many of the world’s environmental crises. Failure within the state, but also in the long tentacles of the globalised supply chains that feed into the industry, that connect the industry to trees in the Amazon. Flanagan shows how tighter regulation in Europe has improved the environment and returned more money to citizens. Standards are either set at the wrong level or unenforced, and, as with any regulation, what you don’t measure can’t be regulated. He also suggests new technologies, particularly land-based salmon farms, that are already well in development and may ultimately put Tasmania’s water-based industry out of business anyway.

You can sense the urgency with which this was put together – questions seem to have been put to the major players in March this year, only weeks before publishing. One section is redacted. There is no doubt that Flanagan is taking a risk in writing this, as he has done so before, notably over Tasmania’s forest industry. The rush to publish though does mean this is a sometimes uneven read, occasionally hard to follow when some basic information and chronology would have been useful.

The writing is bombastic and emotive. Flanagan’s talent for a pithy phrase is evident: the cages are a “grotesque sonic hell”, salmon cutlets “a pink fish-finger for the twenty-first century”. It is effective but I fear it will resonate with few who don’t already accept that the industry is a problem. Maybe it doesn’t need to. Until I’d read this, I was a fence-sitter, aware of the problems but still reasonably happy to chow down on a salmon steak from time to time. But as the book seller forewarned me, I think I’ll be giving up Tasmanian salmon for the time being.

Gay rating: not gay

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