Last week I attended the Tasmanian Ocean Summit, the second one hosted by the Australia Institute. Much like the rest of our natural environment, our oceans are in big trouble thanks to climate change and other pressures like fish farming and over-fishing. Sadly, both governments and industry are using similar greenwashing tactics to avoid what needs to be done.
Waving around dodgy economic modelling and exaggerated jobs figures has long been a favourite and effective tactic of the mining industry and the salmon industry is now following their example.
But the real concern is not how governments allow themselves to be manipulated by the abuse of economic modelling, but how they are financialising the protection of nature, like the federal government's proposed 'nature repair market'. More on that later.
The salmon industry is in the spotlight right now because of its direct impact on an endangered species called the Maugean skate. Known as the thylacine of the sea, the skate is an endangered ray-like animal found only in Tasmania's Macquarie Harbour.
Scientists from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) warned the Maugean skate is 'teetering on the brink of extinction' and in May this year scientists took the extraordinary step of releasing research mid-project in order to sound the alarm that urgent action was required.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has pledged no new extinctions on her watch. So, the Australia Institute and Equity Generation Lawyers wrote to the Minister, laying out the new scientific evidence of the impacts of fish farming on water quality to trigger a review of the EPBC decision that allowed largescale fish farming in Macquarie harbour.
The Commonwealth released Conservation Advice that could not be clearer, salmon farming is the problem. While hydro-electric dam releases and gillnetting also impact the skate, fish farming is the primary cause of oxygen depletions that have led to the skate's population almost halving since 2014. Ms Plibersek wrote to Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff warning that salmon farming needs to be "eliminated or significantly reduced" in Macquarie Harbour.
The Tasmanian government is so far standing by the salmon industry citing its jobs figures and economic contribution to the state. Just like the fossil fuel industry likes to wildly exaggerate its jobs figures, the salmon industry has claimed that a third or up to half of jobs on Tasmania's west coast are linked to salmon. The modelling has never been published, and estimates appear to be based on methods criticised by the ABS and the Productivity Commission as being regularly "abused".
Australia Institute research shows the salmon industry employs few people and pays little tax. ATO data shows the three main salmon companies sold over $7 billion worth of fish but paid just $51 million in corporate tax over the last nine years. Salmon farming operations appear to have paid zero tax in the last three years for which data is available. In terms of employment, 99.3 per cent of Tasmanian do not work in the salmon industry. That's not to say even a small number of jobs are not important, obviously they are. But few jobs are so important as to be worth the extinction of a whole species.
There is an opportunity to state regulators to do the right thing too. All licences for marine farming in Macquarie Harbour are set to expire on 30 November 2023.
The EPA and Department of Natural Resources have before them compelling scientific evidence and legal advice demonstrating clear grounds to deny the renewal of existing licences when they expire. If they are renewed, both regulators will have to explain why economic modelling is given more weight than science.
The fact is that neoliberalism and financial markets can't and won't save our endangered species from extinction or protect their habitat. Markets do not value ecosystems or endangered species. We have seen market-based policies fail in aged care, disability care and saving the Murray-Darling River system and the millions of fish who now regularly die in it. Despite the failure of such markets at the state level, the federal government is preparing legislation for a national biodiversity trading scheme.
In this nature repair market, developers, mining companies or landowners who want to destroy some ecosystem or endangered species habitat will be able to purchase an offset from some other landowner who has a credit for not destroying habitat somewhere else. As Richard Denniss has pointed out: "The 'market price' for such destruction won't be determined by the value of a koala, but by the potential profits of destroying a similar sized piece of habitat elsewhere."
That's why a market approach will fail. As the old adage goes, markets know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. You can't put a price on things which are invaluable.
After all, if a threatened species' habitat is valued at a certain price by the market, what's to stop a mining billionaire from deciding it's a price they are willing to pay in order to open their next gas field or coal mine? They have the money to do it.
In order to save marine species like the Maugean skate, or protect other endangered species on land, we must protect what's left of their habitat, not allow the market to set a reasonable price to demolish it.
If the federal government's nature repair market goes ahead, there will be a price on the head of every endangered species and habitat in the country. And if the governments don't intervene, salmon farming could wipe out a species that has survived since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Some argue that blowing up Juukan Gorge for more iron ore or wiping an entire species out for some more farmed fish is just the cost of doing business, but in reality it's the cost of relying on markets, instead of our parliaments, to determine what is profitable and what is precious.
- Ebony Bennett is deputy director for the Australia Institute and a regular columnist for The Canberra Times.