One third of the harbour on Tasmania’s west coast is inside the World Heritage Area and has seen a series of mass fish deaths and stock reductions over the past two years.
The revelation about an official reduction emerged in the Federal Court on Thursday in a case brought by Huon Aquaculture against the Commonwealth and commercial rivals Tassal and Petuna.
Huon Aquaculture is challenging the 2012 decision of the then-federal environment minister to allow salmon farming expansion in the harbour, arguing it’s invalid and has led to environmental degradation.
Petuna and Tassal are parties to the case and support the Minister’s decision.
The court heard the EPA contacted all three companies on Monday March 5 — two days after the state election to flag its intention to significantly reduce fish stocks in the harbour.
It’s expected to make its final determination by the end of April.
If the Federal Court found there had been a breach of Commonwealth law, it would then be up to authorities to pursue further civil litigation against the respondents, or criminal prosecution.
A breach could mean all three companies have been operating in Macquarie Harbour illegally.
Companies facing big losses
The court heard if Tassal, Huon and Petuna are forced to close down their harbour operations, “they will suffer a very significant loss”.
The court was told relations between Huon and the other salmon companies had become so bad they barely communicated.
Petuna Acting CEO David Wood told the hearing losing Petuna’s harbour operation would “in effect bring our business as a going concern into question”.
“Our ability to provide to the market would be removed,” Mr Wood said.
Tassal’s Head of Sustainability Linda Sams denied the company had been less than transparent in doubling its salmon stocks.
“Tassal has always been very transparent about that position … that we were going to put 100% of fish in,” Ms Sams said.
Tassal previously accused Huon Aquaculture of bringing the case on profit and commercial competition grounds rather than environmental.
Lawyers for the Commonwealth also questioned Huon’s motives, accusing the company of “a change of mind very late in the piece by someone who could have challenged straight away.”
Outside court Huon CEO Frances Bender said she couldn’t comment on the case until it had been resolved.
She was disappointed “that we’ve come back to that position” regarding the EPA’s draft determination to reduce fish stocks dramatically.
Laura Kelly from Environment Tasmania was not convinced lowering the salmon stocks to 2012 levels would be enough.
“Until we see the science we don’t even know that will be adequate,” she said.
“This is the type of action that the EPA should have taken two years ago to try and save the harbour.
They are taking the action after the harbour has already crashed and two days after the election.”
Greens spokeswoman Rosalie Woodruff questioned the EPA’s timing.
“It is convenient this was released two days after the election,” she said.
“It certainly helped keep salmon farming off the election menu. It helped the Government avoid a spotlight on salmon during the election period.”