Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

16 thoughts on “‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan”

    1. Yep – he goes into all that. The pollution the fish farms cause is horrendous and the fact we then go on to eat those fish that have been raised in an unclean environment and fed a not particularly healthy diet makes me feel ill…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I haven’t been able to eat salmon since I had my gall bladder out (or much else, actually) but I still hope the message gets out about this.
    What is it with Tasmania!

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      1. I know, but *sigh* for as long as I can remember Tasmania has had environmental issues that seem to be caused by a cowboy mentality. I love Tasmania, and I’d really like to see it develop hi-tech industries that don’t depend on ruining the environment… things like an animation hub or designer items where the products are exported digitally.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, sorry to hear about the gall bladder issues. I think Tasmania is plagued by these kinds of scandals because (1) liberal government and (2) at bottom of world it thinks no one notices. This book mentions that Hobart has a severe water shortage problem, which I found surprising, and that what fresh water it does have is used by the fish farms at tax payer expense. All Tasmanians should read this book for that issue alone.

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  2. Reading this while eating breakfast was probably not a smart thing to do. I feel rather nauseous now especially since I had salmon for dinner earlier in the week. I can’t imagine the practices here in UK are very much different.
    If I want to eat salmon again it’s going to have to be the wild variety. OK for home dining but it rules out eating salmon in any restaurant since you can’t be sure where they sourced it

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    1. Apologies. I should have put a warning on my review: don’t read if eating! Lol.

      Flanagan draws a lot of comparisons to the Scottish salmon farming industry, which sounds just as bad. Unfortunately, because this book doesn’t have an index, I can’t find the specific bits he talks about but his criticisms, while largely levelled at Tasmania, do apply to the global industry as a whole.

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        1. Maybe he was able to access data from specific places more easily? It’s not like Scotland is the only part of Britain that’s invested in this “technology” and the English farms are not operating on any different principles. Fortunately, there are plenty of tasty foodstuffs beyond “seafood” which do not require such an ethical compromise.

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          1. The book is solely about Tasmania because that’s where he lives and he’s been personally affected because his writing “shed” (where he works 6 months of the year) is on Bruny Island.

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  3. We’re of a similar age, and fish farming in Canada has developed in much the same way as it has in Australia, so I figure you must have heard rumblings about this, for a decade or more, long before you chose to investigate and long before this book was published; I’m curious what made you cross that border between NOT wanting to know and wanting to know. I ask because we all have a lot of changes to make, urgently, in an effort to slow the disaster that our (speaking as a privileged over-consumer, whereas many other cultures have not impacted the environment anywhere near as much as citizens of “wealthy” over-consuming nations have) past behaviours have contributed to…and I think many of us struggle with that NOT wanting to know, even though we won’t choose to shift the future to a less terrifying scenario unless we do know. Coffee, the water requirement for its growth, even when produced without slave labour: that’s one of the issues I’m reluctant to investigate…

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    1. Well, you would think I might have heard something… but I’ve only been back in Oz for two years…and prior to that I was in the UK for 20 and can’t recall hearing anything about fish farming… I had heard plenty about over-fishing in the sea, so stopped buying cod and other unsustainably caught fish. I had also heard plenty about cheap chicken in the UK, which is why only ate organic / free-range chicken purchased from a local butcher. I really only started to increase my salmon intake 8 months ago when I switched to a low-carb diet and completely cut out potatoes, pasta, rice etc and focused on eating lots of veg with lean meat, either chicken or fish. I’m not a great fan of the chicken in Australia… too big, too tasteless (and that’s the free-range ones) so don’t eat much of it but salmon is versatile and tasty. I probably would have continued to eat it had I not heard about this book. Flanagan is my favourite living writer, which is why I read it.

      I have jokingly said to my partner that there’s not much left for us to eat now, because I know I’ll never buy salmon products from Tassell or Huon, the two Tasmania brands Flanagan targets and which I’ve been regularly purchasing for months and months, we don’t eat red meat, limit our chicken intake and even the provenance of avocadoes is now called into question. I’m a big coffee drinker, so not sure I want to discover the dubious practices associated with its production, although I only purchase from our local coffee roaster (2 minutes walk from my front door) and they have an ethical buying policy so I can only hope that means the beans are produced in a sustainable way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We are very fortunate to have so many well-researched books by writers and thinkers. Discovering one like this, via a favoured author, can spark curiosity/concern about related issues. “Free-range”, for instance, is also complicated; many who opt for this designation are are as dismayed as you have been in the wake of Flanagan’s volume. (In some regions, for example, the designation requires a door, but the animals are not released to use it–and raised in the same unsanitary conditions as fish farms.) Your awesome indie bookshop could recommend plenty of good reading material too.

        Something positive you can look forward to, is that when you do make changes in your consumption, you will be able to dramatically reduce your ecological impact in short order. (There are websites that help one calculate this and track the changes.) Another positive is that the majority of the world is filling their plate with different foods than you’ve outlined, so there are plenty of flavours and foodstuffs that you will find that you enjoy a great deal and you’ll no longer be concerned about what you’re not eating, but enjoying what you are. Change can be good! As for the coffee, no, there’s nothing sustainable about it, only varying degrees of minimizing the negative impact, but, for now, I’m working at other changes as steadily as I can and trying to sort through the compromises and imperfections…

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  4. Mr Books and I are both reading this. By about page 70 we also realised that salmon was permanently off the menu for us too. Mr Books had heard some mumblings about the issues around farmed salmon, but I had not. In fact there is nothing about the way these companies sell their products that indicates they are farmed.
    My only hope was the couple of references to Scandinavian farms that were starting to address the feed & environmental issues. I’d like to know more about how they are moving forward with this…

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    1. Isn’t it vile? I knew salmon was farmed and I have seen fish farms (in UK) before, but I stupidly thought the fish must have a happy life swimming around in a fenced-off bit of ocean. But you’re right, the marketing people don’t mention the word “farm” or “farmed” anywhere on the packaging – in the good knowledge this would put people off.

      Liked by 1 person

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