Image for Frances Bender ‘Environmental Warrior’: I beg to differ ...

Frances and Peter Bender, from HAC’s website, here

First published March 22

Living next door to the Huon Aquaculture Company’s Lonnavale salmon hatchery I would love to be able to report that Frances Bender’s recent expressions of concern for the environment were matched by the reality on the ground.

Sadly I cannot.

In December 2016 we witnessed Frances Bender in the ABC Four Corners program in tears as she spoke about protecting the environment in Macquarie Harbour.

Earlier this month there was a media release for International Women’s Day describing her as an “Environmental Warrior” and in the Saturday Mercury (March 11,) ‘Talking Point’ article she wrote that “Peter and I operate our farms as safely and sustainably as we know how and when the science tells us something we listen.”

In November 2009 the Environmental Protection Authority and the Huon Valley Council told me the extremely long filamentous green and brown algae growing over and around our water intake pipe in the Russell River in Lonnavale are common in all rivers.

November 13, 2009 Russell River, Lonnavale 2.2km downstream of the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery daily sewerage discharge into this river. Pictured is the water intake pipe for all our household water.
The highly visible algae, as pictured, is 2.2km downstream of the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery and yet upstream from the hatchery there isn’t any.

Since 2009 I have been taking regular photographs of the Russell River both upstream and downstream from the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery. The pictures simply tell it all.

Upstream of the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery any day of the year.

Upstream from the fish farm and there is no sign of any algae ever occurring there, and despite numerous requests to Frances Bender and the Director EPA Wes Ford, no-one is able to provide me with any images showing upstream eutrophication.

Why not? Simple. There isn’t any.

Despite our suspicions in 2009 the filamentous green algae may have had something to do with the nearby Huon Aquaculture Fish Farm, the authorities (regulators) advised us this was not the case. The EPA even referred me to the esteemed Professor Peter Davies from the University of Tasmania.

Professor Davies had been commissioned by Huon Aquaculture to prepare a report on the river as a requirement of the Environmental Protection Notice that had been served on the company. In his correspondence to me he stated:

The issues are because of local agriculture, the impact of the nearby Gunns plantation, the specific bends in the river and the fact that we had cleared the banks of this section of the river from pampas grasses and blackberry.

The report by P.E. Davies titled “Nutrient and Algal levels in the Russell River and their relationship to discharges from the Huon Aquaculture Company (HAC) farm facility (Report to Huon Aquaculture Company)” was published in 2010.

Despite numerous attempts to view a copy of this report on the state of our Community river from HAC, the EPA and DPIPWE, we have been denied any access citing “commercial in confidence”.

A request by Environment Tasmania to obtain a copy of this report has now been with the Ombudsman going on three years.

An abridged version of a second report published in 2015 is available on their website. Despite acknowledging that there is significantly more algae just downstream of the hatchery than upstream Professor Davies somehow comes to the conclusion that this is caused by “a combination of factors with no relation to the HAC discharge” but he offers no explanation as to what these might be. 

There are lots of graphs and charts but no photos. Again, why not produce the photographic evidence?

In contrast I can show an extensive collection of clear images of severe eutrophication downstream. The downstream algae is a year round brown slippery slime on the riverbed; and for many months of the year there is extreme long green filamentous algae often fluorescent in colour as is shown in my photograph taken March 10th 2017.

March 10, 2017 Russell River, Lonnavale 2.2km downstream of the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery daily sewerage discharge into this river

After years of exhaustive research, communicating with both Frances and Peter Bender, after numerous letters and emails with Director EPA, Alex Schaap, Director EPA Wes Ford, DPIPWE, Inland Fisheries, the Huon Valley Council and all levels of government, I have amassed an extensive collection of the most compelling evidence ... Evidence the cause of the severe eutrophication of the Russell River is indeed the HAC Fish Farm. Acknowledgement their farm discharges 26 million litres of fish farm sewerage*, every day of the year into the Russell River. (10 Olympic swimming pools)

In science terms this volume is innocuously referred to as 0.3 Cumecs, however most disturbingly at times of the year this also represents the “entire flow” of this once pristine mountain stream.

Huon Aquaculture has a licence from DPIPWE to extract up to 100% of the river for their industrial activity and in all my 9 years of investigation I have not seen any consideration whatsoever from Frances or Peter Bender for the downstream Lonnavale community, any regard for the tourists and anglers who visit the Russell, and certainly there is no respect for the environment.

We no longer see Platypus or the delightful River Rat and according to fishers who fish downstream, trout fishing is now hopeless. And you can forget swimming.

I have on file letters from former Director EPA, Alex Schaap who wrote to me in November 2014 saying in part:

“Having said that, the risks to the longer term ecological health of the river through nutrient enrichment must be addressed and, in any event, there has clearly been a substantial impact on environmental amenity during warmer low flow periods which warrants resolution sooner rather than later.” (9/11/2014)

“As previously advised, I agree with you that excessive algal growth in the Russell River is unsatisfactory from both an ecological and an environmental amenity basis. I am also satisfied that the nutrient rich discharge from the hatchery is a significant driver for that algal growth.

While huge improvement has already been made, I also agree that this situation - should have been remedied some years ago and I remain committed to appropriately remedying the issue.” (19/11/2014)

And on 30th June 2015 Wes Ford wrote to me:

“It has been previously agreed that the operations of the Huon Aquaculture Group are having an impact on the river through the nutrients from their flow through system.”

And in an interview with Airlie Ward, on ABC Australia Wide in July 2015:

“EPA director Wes Ford admitted the discharge from the hatchery was a significant cause of algal growth.”

“The hatchery, its discharge, the nutrients in it does have an impact on the river,” he said.”

“Mr Ford said as salmon farming expands operators may be banned from running more hatcheries on Tasmanian waterways and be required to use recirculation systems.”

Which Mr Ford later corrected in writing on 27th July 2015 as follows:

“That may inevitably mean that larger systems will need to operate as full recirculation systems, particularly if they are on smaller waterways.”

In February 2017 I wrote to Director Wes Ford alerting him to anecdotal evidence the Hatchery had closed down since September 2016, the onsite manager had taken 12 months’ leave, and that we observed little to no vehicle movements to and from the fish farm for the five month period.

I advised Wes Ford the river was looking the best I have ever seen it in all our 9 years. In a return email to me March 3rd 2017 Wes Ford repeated the very same rhetoric I have been hearing for the past 8 years:

“I acknowledge your advice that the river improved the period from September to January but has clearly changed again in the past two weeks.  This is in my view a combination of warmer weather, decreasing flows and nutrient levels providing suitable conditions for algal growth.

As I have indicated on a number of occasions there a number of sources on (sic) nutrient input into the river. 

At this point the information I have suggests Huon Aquaculture are complying with the current EPN.”

There are no other inputs into the 2.2km section of river from below the fish farm to the bottom of my 5 acre property which fronts onto the river. There has been no neighbouring agricultural activity and no forestry practices in the past 8 years or more, and the Huon Valley Council have confirmed there are no leaking septic systems.

Neither Wes Ford nor Frances Bender are able or willing to provide any evidence of any other pollution inputs into the Russell River.

The popular Rivers Edge Wilderness Camping ground, which is directly opposite the Hatchery, has a state of the art septic system and a regime of regular waste removal. And, anyway, the downstream severe eutrophication was occurring well before the Camping ground opened to the public.

On numerous occasions well experienced angler Richard Dax has walked the river from our property to the discharge pipe and finds no other possible inputs of any kind into the river.

The only source of high nutrient input into the Russell River is the various discharges from the Huon Aquaculture Fish Farm. These nutrient rich polluting inputs are either from their antiquated and no longer considered best practice Flow Through pond system, are due to the run off from their high nutrient waste irrigation onto heavy clay based land, or indeed a combination of both.

Or if I listen to anecdotal comments it could well be because this fish farm knowingly discharge high nutrient water into the river from their supposed closed loop recirculating system, especially at various times of the year when they remove the smolt and clean the tanks.

Of course Huon Aquaculture are complying with the current EPN. Huon Aquaculture have been served with EPNs in 2007, 2014 and 2015 and the nutrient limits in the EPN are simply too generous in favour of the polluter.

And besides who is responsible for testing the nutrient levels – HAC staff of course. The EPA advises me they don’t have the resources to do their own testing. I have tried suggesting to Wes Ford to engage an “independent” company to test the discharges and to invoice those costs back to HAC. But no, the EPA are comfortable that HAC staff test at the GPS locations shown in their EPN and at the time and dates HAC provide in their reporting.

Despite three EPNs being served on HAC over the past 10 years there is no visible difference to the downstream environmental damage to our river.

Wes Ford wrote to me in October 2015 saying:

“My objective is to seek minimise (sic) the impact on the river and have Huon operating within an acceptable level of impact. However, this does not include managing for zero impact.”

And in September 2016 he said:

“A requirement to reduce input loads further will effectively require the company to close the flow through facility for its brood stock and replace it with a full recirculation system.”

Within days of the Hatchery going back into production last month, the downstream eutrophication came back with a vengeance, and in March 2017 it is as bad as it was back 8 years ago in 2009. 

It is worse than it was in October 2015 when the EPA and a staffer from Huon Aquaculture inspected the river and advised the downstream eutrophication is showing 100% cover and the strands are 20cm to 30cm long.

October 8, 2015 Russell River, Lonnavale 2.2km downstream of the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery. Pictured are an EPA Officer and a Marine Biologist.

Frances Bender went on to say in her Talking Point article:

“I think it is also fair to say that as an ‘industry’ we are not helping ourselves.”

The first licence was given to operate a small hatchery on the Russell River was granted 20 years ago and in January 2006 this licence was transferred to Peter and Frances Bender. From what was once a small Trout Hatchery we now have a multimillion dollar hatchery producing millions of smolt from thousands of brood fish.

Later this month HAC will undertake up to 144 tanker truck movements of smolt from this Hatchery travelling to the vessel Ronja Huon moored at Port Huon. This is certainly no longer a small hatchery.

The Russell River simply does not have the capacity and flow to absorb the considerable high nutrient discharges into the river – a concern raised by DPIPWE and IFS back in 2008 when the Huon Valley Council incorrectly identified this mountain stream to be a lowland river.

Former Director Alex Schaap, EPA and Director John Diggle, IFS have both agreed the Russell River was once renowned for great trout fishing.

Richard Dax, formerly Executive Officer with Anglers Alliance Tasmania, has over 30 years’ experience fishing the Russell River. He has personally witnessed the diminished opportunities below the Hatchery whilst above it is still an excellent quality fishing location.

The EPA keep saying “we need more science” and in December 2014 Manager Environmental Operations EPA, Mr Darryl Cook told me they are concerned over the might of the Huon Aquaculture Company should they consider legal action against the EPA.

Now that Frances Bender is taking legal action against Director Wes Ford ( ABC here ), surely it is timely for the EPA to take immediate demonstrative action to save the Russell River from the ongoing pollution of this Huon Aquaculture Fish Farm. Ten years of “science” is long enough.

I’m not asking for the industry to be shut down. I’m just asking Frances Bender to put her money where her mouth is and spend the dollars required to install a full recirculation system – as they were forced to do at their new Forest Home Hatchery in Ranelagh.

Their new Ranelagh Hatchery is upstream of the Huon Valley water supply intake and HAC were prohibited by Council from discharging any waste into the Huon River. In August 2015 Peter Bender said in a press release in the local Huon Valley News:

“Forest Home is an essential part of Huon growing sustainably into the future and it has been important for us to take the time to construct a facility of the highest environmental credentials.

The Forest Home Hatchery is a ‘zero discharge’ facility ensuring no discharges of waste into the Huon River…”

As Frances Bender so correctly says in her Mercury article “Tasmanians do not have to choose between the environment and jobs. We have the science, the intelligence and the respect to be able to clearly achieve both”. 

And that’s precisely what she should do.

* Sewerage Macquarie Dictionary, page 92.

“Geoffrey Swan resides on a 5 acre property downstream from the Huon Aquaculture Hatchery in Lonnavale. Since 2008 he has been observing the ongoing destruction of the Russell River, and has been in constant contact with all relevant authorities, all levels of Government and both Frances and Peter Bender. He has also been fighting for the nearby Little Denison River which is being similarly polluted by the Snowy Range Hatchery who also employs the antiquated Flow Through Pond system. There are a further 13 Hatcheries throughout Tasmania employing this no longer considered best practice process of discharging their sewerage water into the local freshwater rivers.”

Mercury, Talking Point: River discharge raises suspicion of environmental harm