Degradation of the Russell River: an anglers opinion

By Geoffrey Swan

Much has been written and said about Tasmania's burgeoning salmon industry which is so nurtured by our government, and rightly so. However, whilst we would all like the industry to succeed, it must do so sustainably and the views of so many others who rely on our waters for their existence cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Other aquaculture industries (including abalone, mussel and oyster growers), fishing guides, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, scuba divers and others are often critical of the seeming lack of meaningful controls of salmon farming in our estuaries and seas.

These salt-water salmon farms are often in the news but very little information comes to the public's notice concerning ongoing problems with salmon hatcheries, which are on fresh water streams and are often hidden well out of sight.

Multiple objections and evidence seem to fall on somewhat deaf ears when these hatcheries are considered, including those of the recent Senate Committee Inquiry into Fin Fish Aquaculture whose findings, in my view, glossed over the problems with salmon hatcheries located on freshwater rivers.

Two of these in southern Tasmania, the Russell and the Little Denison rivers, provide examples of serious stream degradation. Both these streams have been recognised as being polluted since 2002. The major cause is the use of a flow-through pond system (non-recirculating). Pristine fresh river water is directed into open-air ponds picking up any pollutants on the way through (such as fish faeces and high-nutrient undigested feed) then flows back into the river further downstream.

Modern best practice demands that hatcheries employ a recirculating system which removes these pollutants, resulting in a zero discharge into the river.

I reside by the Russell River; another ambassador for these rivers (since 2002) is Richard Dax, an experienced angler who has fished there for well over 30 years. He is particularly familiar with the Russell, which is the main subject of this article.

In Dax’s own words: ‘Once the Nirvana for southern fly anglers, this stream gave consistently good sport until the coming of a large hatchery at Lonnavale in 2006 which replaced a smaller pre-existing trout hatchery. Progressively since then, angling qualities have diminished to an "average" level, as has the visible quality of the flowing water and the once prevalent wildlife.

‘Whilst this may well be construed as "anecdotal," it is interesting to note that fishing above the hatchery before interruption to the river flow remains an outstanding fly fishing water and the water itself remains pristine and sparkling year round.”

Since 2006 there have been multiple complaints to the various controllers of standards, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), The Huon Valley Council (HVC), The Inland Fisheries Service (IFS) and Water Resources (WR) and indeed the hatchery operators themselves – the Huon Aquaculture Company (HAC). Despite these multiple objections and confirmation, in my view, from all these authorities, that the hatchery is indeed the cause of the Russell's degradation, very little has been done to return the river to its once pristine condition.

Consider the following views from two former EPA Directors:

The water management branch reported their record of very low flows in the Russell River over recent years and advised that currently, natural flow in the river is significantly less than the environmental flow triggers attached to the HAC water licence. Pollutants in the water being returned to the river after use in the hatchery create a high level of environmental risk in this low flow state. These matters also impact on downstream water use of the Russell River which includes potable water, irrigation, stock water and primary contact recreational use" – 29 January 2008

The HAC licence has remained unchanged since 2007: 0.3 cumecs or 26 megalitres every day of the year, regardless of total river flow, which at times is no more than 0.3 cumecs.

 “Water Resources report that the Russell River has had low flows for the past four years and that the current water allocation licence is no longer appropriate to maintain environmental flow.  The flow in the river is not sufficient to provide dilution of pollutants discharged from the flow through system.” - 31 January 2008

“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 November 2014

Unfortunately space does not allow for a full account of the last 14 years but consider these facts:

Ø  Three Environment Protection Notices have been issued, in 2007, 2014 and 2015. In each case, rather than ensuring that there is less pollution, each EPN loosens the regulations of the former so it is now easier for the HAC to meet the terms laid down than it was in 2007.

Ø  The hatchery was licensed by the HVC and the IFS on the basis that it was an ‘existing use’ through the purchase by HAC of a small hatchery. A huge expansion resulted without appropriate safeguards or due considerations to contemporary practices.

Ø  WR insist that the flow-through is ‘non consumptive’ as it is returned to the river. However, through regulation WR allows for the ‘take’ to be 90%+ of the total flow. Whilst the return of this water can be looked at through rose-tinted glasses, without these it is clear that the resultant below-hatchery water is heavily polluted by the processes of the hatchery.

Ø  No inflow measuring device or controls are in place to regulate the incoming flow to the hatchery, resulting in, at worst only 10% of natural flow available between the hatchery inflow and outflow (such as in our present record drought conditions. The hatchery inflow occurs regardless of whether water flows are high or low, and results in constant damage to the natural part of the river through the greatly reduced natural flows which bypass HAC'S operation.

Ø  Despite the constant complaints raised, the EPA insists that there should be no concerns and that the algal blooms are typical in Tasmanian rivers. To the best of my knowledge, the EPA has provided no evidence to support this claim and has not fully investigated the principal causes behind the algal blooms.

Ø  One algae identified by the EPA, is known to only thrive in polluted water conditions.

Ø  HAC's contemporary recirculating system, also on site, uses bore water and sprays treated effluent onto the land behind. The bore and effluent spray are close to the river and the natural topography makes it likely that this effluent seeps back to the river, possibly further compounding the downstream pollution.

Ø  We have recently had the voluntary assistance of a highly qualified water engineer who is employed by an international company and is an expert on water pollution. Based on the available evidence to hand, he has been able to confirm that there are indeed harmful downstream effects coming from the hatchery.

Ø  Information used by the various authorities is based partly or wholly on measurements and figures undertaken by HAC staff – not independent science.

In fairness to the various controlling authorities, there is a realisation that there is a need for new regulations pertaining to in-stream freshwater hatcheries and new approaches are under consideration by government – but the wheels of change turn very slowly.

The Russell River's problems are now over 14 years old and require more urgent attention before it is too late and we lose our once pristine river.

About the author: Geoffrey Swan has lived alongside the Russell River in Lonnavale since 2008. On a daily basis he sees first-hand the downstream impacts of the HAC Hatchery, which is 2km upstream from his residence.

Since 2009 Geoffrey has been campaigning for change to the flow-through pond system of aquaculture into a best-practice recirculating aquaculture system. He has actively engaged in regular communications and meetings with HAC, EPA, IFS, HVC, WR, DHHS, DPIPWE, the Senate Inquiry into Fin Fish Aquaculture and all levels of local, state and federal government.

Assisting and contributing to this article has been renowned recreational angler Richard Dax. For the past 30 years he has become familiar not only with every nook and cranny of the Russell, but also with the river's recreational amenity and other inhabitants. Platypus, for instance, once seen three or four times a day, appear as singles every now and then, and the beautiful native water rat sadly seems to be no more.