All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Toxic by Richard Flanagan

on August 5, 2021

Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry
Richard Flanagan
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 224p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}: Is Tasmanian salmon one big lie?

In a triumph of marketing, the Tasmanian salmon industry has for decades succeeded in presenting itself as world’s best practice and its product as healthy and clean, grown in environmentally pristine conditions. What could be more appealing than the idea of Atlantic salmon sustainably harvested in some of the world’s purest waters?

But what are we eating when we eat Tasmanian salmon?

Richard Flanagan’s exposé of the salmon farming industry in Tasmania is chilling. In the way that Rachel Carson took on the pesticide industry in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring, Flanagan tears open an industry that is as secretive as its practices are destructive and its product disturbing.

From the burning forests of the Amazon to the petrochemicals you aren’t told about to the endangered species being pushed to extinction you don’t know about; from synthetically pink-dyed flesh to seal bombs . . . If you care about what you eat, if you care about the environment, this is a book you need to read.

Toxic is set to become a landmark book of the twenty-first century.

I don’t eat seafood at all, I actually really don’t like it but when I was younger, I ate tinned salmon. I think that was because my nan looked after me a lot from the time I was very young and fed us salmon sandwiches, so I just grew up on them. And I loved them. Red salmon only, and for a long time it was the only seafood I liked. I haven’t eaten tinned salmon in years because these days, it doesn’t taste how I remember it tasting when I was younger. It’s insipid in taste and look, bland and unappetising. And I wonder if a lot of that might be for the reasons this book explores.

I’ve watched a few documentaries lately on the commercial fishing industry and the wastage, pollution and side effects (slaughtering of dolphins, etc) of that industry. But I didn’t know anything about salmon farming despite the fact that it’s happening in Australian waters. I have to admit, my idea of salmon or fish farming, was pretty naive. I kind of just imagined, I don’t know, maybe like…..ocean paddocks? Netted off with fish allowed to swim and explore and feed naturally. Turns out – it’s nothing like that.

This isn’t just about the farming practices of salmon: “high rise” stacks of cages teeming with fish, where all the excrement and uneaten food flows down to the fish in each subsequent pen below (if you’re on the bottom, that must be quite a murky soup) as well as the procedures of “washing” salmon, using seal bombs to deter seals as well as controversy of discovering companies penning them (seals) without food or water for days. It’s not just about what they are fed and how it’s sourced which possibly has some severe environmental ethical issues. It takes more than a tonne of protein to produce a tonne of salmon according to sources cited within this book and it’s curiously hard to find how much fresh water they are accessing from Tasmanian sources for the process of “washing” the salmon to free their gills from amoeba that suffocate them. In fact, as Flanagan talks about extensively, it’s quite difficult to find a lot of information and that’s because there seems to be little in the way of regulation or process in regards to the salmon farms and that’s squarely on the changing Tasmanian governments.

This book is rife with stories of people who live near the farms and the incessant, constant droning noise of diesel generators and boats that run 24/7 with no noise restrictions. If these sorts of activities were happening on land, they’d be subject to local council regulations but apparently there are no such regulations for activities that occur on the water. There are also many quotes from qualified scientists that query the expansion of Tasmanian salmon farms in certain areas without anything remotely resembling due process in terms of feasibility and environmental impact studies. Some people tried to resign in protest, only to be told it wouldn’t be accepted and then found their names added to a document approving the very thing they were resigning in protest over. Again and again mismanagement around salmon farms in another region of Tasmania, Macquarie Harbour, is cited as a reason to be more cautious in expansion of them on the east coast, especially in the areas they want to put them, which seem to be alarmingly close to land and small communities and in water that seems to be more shallow – these questions and concerns are dismissed. Legislation was passed that meant the Minister had the final say in anything, he and he alone in granting new farming licenses and extensions and basically, if the companies ask, they are granted.

Flanagan is scathing about a lot of things and he doesn’t miss the companies but I think a lot of his scorn is reserved for those in government, the people who stop this or change it and legislate it to be safer, cleaner, less congested and focused on the environmental balance, but who don’t. Who profit off the salmon farms and who cover up mistakes (such as the seal penning) and bail them out when they get into strife. This isn’t a particularly balanced piece – Flanagan’s stance is well known and as a Tasmanian, he has a personal vested interest in the outcome of salmon farming and in the potential destruction that many believe it is causing to Tasmania’s once pristine waters that were teeming with natural fish stocks and other sealife. Much of that has decreased alarmingly in areas that are surrounded by salmon farms and there’s also the concern that much of the run off flows into places were Tasmania sources large amounts of its drinking water. There’s also a concern about the large amounts of antibiotics that are used and that despite promising to decrease usage, some companies have increased their usage up to 75%. There are also both scientists and people who have challenged big salmon companies on sustainability or even noise problems and who report threatening and intimidating behaviour in response.

This book has a huge number of pages that are footnotes, citing where Flanagan sourced his statements and information. I think salmon industries have a done a lot to promote themselves as a much cleaner, ethnical, kinder, healthier choice but even just some of the things in this book throw a lot of that into question. If you do eat salmon and this is something that interests you personally, it might be worth looking into the conditions in which these salmon are raised, what they are fed and how much potential harm the farms are doing to the surrounding waters by releasing quite large amounts of nitrate into them.

The thing I did find the most concerning was seemingly the lack of any rules or regulations to comply with as well as the fact that no one who ever challenged a salmon company or development/expansion, ever seemed to win. They are silenced with either money and NDA’s or expansions and developments go ahead anyway, no matter any community or scientific or environmental concern. No matter the lack of any real studies into potential outcomes. No matter the issues of Macquarie Harbour. I’m not sure you can ever take too many precautions when it comes to a natural resource that is already under stress from other factors but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in anything other than the money generated. No matter what the other costs might be.


Book #136 of 2021

This book counts towards my participation in the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. It’s the 5th book checked off my list – only one more to reach my chosen goal but I am trying to read for as many of the prompts as I can this year. With this book, I’m ticking off published in 2021.

1. Biography

2. Travel

3. Self-help

4. Essay Collection

5. Disease

6. Oceanography 

7. Hobbies

8. Indigenous Cultures

9. Food

10. Wartime Experiences

11. Inventions

12. Published in 2021

2 responses to “Review: Toxic by Richard Flanagan

  1. I love salmon but I haven’t eaten since this book came out.

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