"Are we eating too much salmon?"

An interesting article published by Good Food Australia. 

Salmon & Bear is proud to only use Ora King Salmon. 

"I've been around since the Atlantic salmon, as it was called back then, was first introduced to the market in the 1980s," says chef Christine Manfield. "Back then it was a very different beast. Only a few restaurants served it, there was no retail, and it was a very exclusive, elite product. Chefs had to fight just to get a couple of fish."

Matt Moran can also recall the heady days when salmon was a seasonal product that made a fleeting, and concomitantly exciting, appearance through his suppliers. "Twenty years ago we'd get salmon for six weeks of the year; now it's 12 months of the year," he says. "There's no season; it's in every supermarket."

The industry has certainly come a long way. In its first commercial harvest in 1986-87, Tasmania produced 53 tonnes of salmon while last year its output hovered around 55,000 tonnes. The state's industry is estimated to be worth about $550 million a year, and is projected to reach the billion-dollar mark by 2030.

As Huon Aquaculture executive director Frances Bender says, "When the industry first started we couldn't sell the product. Australians didn't really know what salmon was. Not only did we have to learn how to farm it, we also had to educate the Australian consumer. Now it's a protein choice in a weekly shopping basket."

Yes, Australians like their salmon. Roy Morgan research from last year found that the average Australian eats salmon at least once a week – and that people who were classified as food-literate were more likely to choose salmon than those who frequented the fast food end of the dining spectrum.

But is the product really so clean and green?

Concerns about animal welfare, human health, sustainability and the environmental damage done by fish farming practices have led to some of Australia's most prominent chefs signing up to a newly launched Sustainable Salmon Chefs' Charter.

An initiative of Environment Tasmania, the charter is essentially a mission statement encouraging "pen-to-plate" transparency in the industry (see below). David Moyle and Analiese Gregory, erstwhile and current head chef respectively of Hobart's pre-eminent restaurant Franklin, are both signatories to the charter; so are nationally prominent chefs Maggie Beer, Matt Moran and Christine Manfield.

In Tasmania, Matthew Evans, Luke Burgess (formerly of Hobart's Garagistes), Philippe Leban, former executive chef of MONA's the Source restaurant and owner of A Tiny Place cafe, Christian Ryan of Aloft and Masaaki Koyama of Masaaki's Sushi have added their names to the campaign.

"For us chefs, we have got to be some way responsible for what [salmon farmers are] doing and what farming practices they're conducting," says Moran. "They might be damaging the salmon brand but also damaging the environment. That's what I have a major issue with. They have got to be responsible for their actions and by signing the Chefs' Charter it will help them to change."

It's a sensitive topic on an island "where everyone knows someone who works in the salmon industry," as SBS' Gourmet Farmer and chef Matthew Evans puts it.

Tasmania's Deputy Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, was quick to denounce the charter as a "boycott" of the industry, but the chefs involved have defended it as a mission statement intended to drive greater openness and sustainability.

"Being able to question whether these public waterways the government leases to salmon farmers are being properly managed does not make you anti-Tasmanian; it makes you a caring, thinking human being," says Evans.

"We're simply trying to get the message across to the younger generation about knowing their food source," Manfield says.

The critical questions the chefs will be asking as part of the charter are:

Christine Manfield: "We're simply trying to get the message across to the younger generation about knowing their food source."

■ Where in Tasmania is the salmon grown, specifically what parts of Tasmania's coastline?

■ What has the salmon been fed, and what is in the feed?

■ What plans are in place to move pens out of environmentally sensitive areas, to offshore and onland farming, creating a more sustainable salmon industry?

Government and industry sensitivity to the chefs' charter can be read as an indication of its potential to tarnish the all-important Brand Tasmania. The island has an increasingly popular reputation as a haven of unspoilt wilderness and premium produce.

Analiese Gregory's move south, from Sydney's Bar Brose to Franklin, was driven in part by the "beautiful clean, green image, the fact that the produce is so amazing, and obviously we want it to stay that way".

The industry has undergone a rapid evolution from boutique to industrial-scale farming in three short decades. Now it's facing an environmental scrutiny due to practices that even leading industry figures say need to evolve.

Documented impacts of salmon farming include over-stocking pens, fish faeces build-up, native fish deaths, negative impacts on other aquaculture industries such as mussel farming, and impacts on the sensitive marine environment from commercial pellets fed to the salmon.

Concerns have been focused on Macquarie Harbour, where marine dead zones underneath the leases of the largest salmon farmer, the ASX-listed Tassal (which declined to speak with Fairfax Media directly) have stretched into the surrounding World Heritage Wilderness Area.

Tassal has retained its best-practice certification by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) despite findings released in September that it failed to meet the ASC's minimum standards for oxygen provision to fish and the environment for the third consecutive year.

Environment Tasmania has questioned the validity of the certification, given that Tassal pays auditors directly and has a commercial relationship with ASC overseer, the World Wildlife Fund, to which it gave $250,000 last year in a commercial deal to use the WWF logo.

Environment Tasmania's Laura Kelly says questions being asked about the health of the growing environment inevitably raise concerns about the health of the product.

"We know the flesh is artificially coloured because it isn't fed a natural diet. People don't know the types of feed they consume over their life cycle. We know they could be coming from pens where they swim above mounds of bacteria and in their own faeces. We know half the fish are deaf because their growth is so rapid. We know our water tends to be too warm for the Atlantic salmon and that in summer they swim around with their mouths open, crushing the net where there's the most oxygen," she says.

"The difference between appearance and reality is starkly different. They hide under pictures of beautiful ocean landscapes but the reality is under the water it's more like a battery hen scenario."

And as Matthew Evans says, "Can we farm salmon forever the way we're doing it now? The scientific reports from Macquarie Harbour, one from early this year, says pretty much no. The science is saying you've put too many fish in Macquarie Harbour, too fast. The government allowed it to happen with very little oversight." 

So where does this leave the consumer? Salmon has been marketed for its health-giving attributes: naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids and protein, low in fat, and known to lower cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

Yet behind the health curtain there's the spectre of antibiotic overuse. Figures released last year showed that while other salmon farmers dramatically reduced their use of antibiotics, Tassal quadrupled its use of antibiotics between 2012-13 and 2015-16.

Wild salmon is often touted as an alternative but in fact is a very different beast from the farmed Atlantic salmon, a transplanted species native to northern hemisphere waters. Strongly flavoured, the small amount of native salmon commercially fished tends to wind up as bait or in fish feed – but a campaign by the WA Fishing Industry Council is hoping to win the under-utilised fish some consumer love.

It's important to note that the chefs' charter signatories aren't uniform in their approach to farmed salmon. Restaurants such as Franklin are solely focused on wild fish and never use farmed salmon – "We try to use local fish that aren't super commonly used such as morwong," says Gregory.

Chef Masaaki Koyama, meanwhile, continues to be a Huon ambassador.

Other chefs such as Manfield and Moran are turning to the farmed New Zealand product. "New Zealand salmon [farmed king salmon, not Atlantic] is superior," says Manfield. "It's much more closely aligned with the salmon you'd get out of Alaska and the north-west coast around Seattle. It's clean, it just tastes beautiful; it has a richer colour, a beautiful flavour, a fabulous natural fat content." Moran's preferred pink fish is now ocean trout. 

For Huon's Bender, the future of Tasmania's salmon industry is tied to technological innovation. Scientific advances are allowing them to move pens much further offshore and to make land-based salmon nurseries more economically viable. "By combining a longer growing period on land and the offshore marine site for a shorter period we believe we will get the balance right."

As for the chefs' charter: "It's a campaign coming from a place of people being concerned and I respect that ... It does make me sad, however. Now is the time for us to take stock, look at our regulatory systems and management processes and move forward from here."

The chefs' charter

An initiative of Environment Tasmania, the Sustainable Salmon Chefs' Charter is urging chefs across Australia to sign up to support transparency and sustainability in the salmon farming industry.

Rather than a boycott of farmed salmon, the sustainable salmon campaign is a call for chefs to be fully aware of the product they serve. The charter gives chefs a toolkit for communicating with salmon suppliers to ensure they are choosing the best product, updates on the process of improving farming practices, and information on the health of marine areas used for farming.

The overall aim, says Environment Tasmania, is "highlighting restaurants and chefs doing the right thing to shift Tasmanian farmed salmon to better practices and product."

Industry players develop material for schools

ASX-listed Tasmanian salmon giant Tassal is behind the curriculum promoting the state's aquaculture industry, due to be rolled out next year to primary schools nationally.

In partnership with Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia (PIEFA), a membership-based industry group, the curriculum will teach grade five and six students about the science behind aquaculture, along with material about "jobs and economic prosperity," says PIEFA chief executive Ben Stockwin.

"We're delivering resources for industry. The scope is for students to learn where their food comes from," Stockwin says.

"Our resources meet all the curriculum guidelines and are independently assessed by the national curriculum body."

Environment Tasmania has flagged "huge ethical concerns" with the move at a time when Tassal's farming practices have raised myriad questions about the sustainability of its operations. 

Signatories to Environment Tasmania's Sustainable Salmon Chefs' Charter have also criticised the move. 

"Any time a company is involved in public education you've got to wonder what is wrong with our system that a wealthy modern society is relying on industry to provide educational materials," says chef and former Fairfax restaurant critic Matthew Evans. "They will always have a vested interest."

"I'm horrified," says Christine Manfield. "It's like taking McDonald's into schools."

The curriculum, which is under development, will be available for any primary school to use from the start of the 2018 school year.

Stockwin says about 800 to 900 schools generally adopt the curriculum.  

It will, he says, take "a balanced approach", with a unit on geography looking at the current controversy over Tassal's new leases in Okehampton Bay.

"It takes a balanced approach so it will be including information from those opposed to salmon farming in that particular area," he says.  

A spokesman for Tassal declined to say how much the curriculum development was costing the company. 

"Education levels in Tasmania must continue to improve," he says. "Research shows that part of the solution is connecting educational outcomes with employment outcomes."

Clive Morley

Strategist. Marketing Consultant.