Media Release Save Our Sharks

Cancel Macquarie Harbour salmon licences to save endangered Maugean skate

October 9, 2023
  • Conservation groups have asked EPA Director to not renew Macquarie Harbour fish farm licences this year, as Maugean skate is being driven to extinction
  • Groups have lodged a Right to Information application for EPA to hand over information including breaches of conditions and infringement notices as well as salmon production tonnage, fish escapes, deaths and disease
  • Federal government’s conservation advice says salmon farming depleting oxygen Maugean skate needs to survive

Environment organisations have called on Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to not renew fish farm licences for Macquarie Harbour when they expire this year to give the endangered Maugean skate a chance of survival in its only home.

Tasmania’s Maugean skate could become the world’s first ray or shark to become extinct in modern times as a direct result of human activity unless drastic action is taken, with scientists fearing it could become extinct within 10 years or wiped out in just one extreme weather event. After intense coastal storms in 2019, the population was cut in half to about 1500 individuals.[i]

The Maugean skate – part of the group of cartilaginous fishes that includes sharks and rays –  lives solely in Macquarie Harbour on the remote west coast of Tasmania but it is being starved of the oxygen it needs to survive. The oxygen levels in Macquarie Harbour have plummeted primarily because of intensive salmon farming requires oxygen to break down fish feed and fish waste.[ii]

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), legal advisors to the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) and Humane Society International (HSI) Australia, has written to EPA Director Wes Ford, asking him to use his powers under the Environmental Management and Pollution Control Act 1994 to refuse renewal of the 10 licences for fish farming in Macquarie Harbour when they expire on November 30. Under the Act, the Director may renew an environmental licence where satisfied it is appropriate to do so. The Director may refuse a licence, for example, where salmon companies have breached conditions of their licences, or committed other offences under the Act, or otherwise where “unacceptable environmental impacts of the activity which have emerged or been identified since the licence was first granted.”[iii]

The EDO has lodged a Right to Information request on behalf of AMCS and HSI, asking the EPA to hand over documents including infringement notices issued to the three fish farm operators in Macquarie Harbour – Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna – or other breaches, as well as details about salmon production tonnage, significant fish escapes, mass fish stock deaths and disease outbreaks.

AMCS shark scientist Dr Leonardo Guida said: “The Maugean skate has been around since Tyrannosaurus rex but is now fighting for its very existence, literally choking to death in Macquarie Harbour, because of salmon farming depleting the oxygen the skate needs to survive.

“The salmon fish farms must go from Macquarie Harbour, but if the EPA chooses to renew the licences in November, then it must be transparent and immediately hand over information about the environmental damages the fish farms have caused, including breaches of conditions and infringement notices as well as fish escapes, deaths and disease. If the EPA does not hand over this information, then what has it to hide? It’s not just the Maugean skate’s existence that’s at stake here but the broader ‘clean and green’ reputation of Tasmanian produce.”

HSI marine biologist Lawrence Chlebeck said: “This is an extinction emergency. The Maugean skate must be listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ and given every chance to survive.

“Tasmania is home to Australia’s most infamous extinction, that of the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. Does the state really want the ignominy of hosting the modern-world’s first extinction of a shark or ray directly because of human activity?”

EDO Managing Lawyer Claire Bookless said: “The recent Conservation Advice from the federal government makes it clear that the key threat to the skate’s survival is poor water quality in Macquarie Harbour and that the primary cause is fish farming. The EPA has the power to refuse a renewal where unacceptable environmental impacts have been identified since the licence was first granted.

“The science is clear. Salmon farming in Macquarie Harbour is causing permanent damage to ecosystems and marine life including the ancient Maugean skate. We urge the EPA Director to make the necessary decision to prioritise the future of the skate and not renew these fish farm licences on 30 November.”

[i] Moreno D & Semmens J (2023) Interim report – Macquarie Harbour Maugean skate population status and monitoring, The Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania.

[ii] “The primary threat to the species is degraded water quality, in particular substantially reduced levels of dissolved oxygen throughout Macquarie Harbour. There is a significant correlation between the reduction in dissolved oxygen levels and increases in salmonid aquaculture due to the bacterial degradation of organic material introduced into the water column from fish-feed and fish-waste.”
DCCEEW (2023) Conservation Advice for Zearaja Maugeana (Maugean Skate). Australia: Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment & Water.

[iii] The clause notes for the Finfish Farming Environmental Regulation Bill 2017 relating to the proposed section 42T(5) of the Act makes it clear that subsection (5) was included to provide the EPA Director with broad discretion to refuse to renew an environmental licence and may include grounds relating to the “unacceptable environmental impacts of the activity which have emerged or been identified since the licence was first granted.”