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Is the Australian salmon industry about to self-destruct?

Nothing good ever comes from public infighting.

“Warzone” was the word one top exec recently used in conversation with IntraFish to describe the current state of the Australian aquaculture industry.

While salmon farmers engage in court battles with local government and producers stab each other in the back, NGOs are jumping into the void of distraction to wreak their own havoc on the markets.

Huon Aquaculture’s unprecedented court battle with the Tasmanian government raises a barrage of questions for starters.

The company -- the second largest salmon farmer in Australia -- is on a quest to limit stocking densities in Macquarie Harbour and enforce environmental standards it alleges have been ignored by the government.

In a further twist, the court action is not being supported by Huon’s Macquarie Harbour neighbors, Tassal and Petuna, who claim current regulations are adequate for sustainability. In fact Tassal has gone as far as opposing it in court.

Now call me cynical, but I’m imagining this may be causing some tension.

What motivates Huon’s legal action is debatable. Is it concern for the environment for environment’s sake; concern for the environment for its own sake; or simply a move to slow down its biggest competitor, Tassal?

If it’s the latter, it’s working. Tassal has already taken a hit from Huon’s court advances and been told to destock one of its farms, a process Huon is now trying to speed up by escalating its case to the Canberra courts.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is also revisiting its approval of the company’s production, with rumors flying that the certification in Macquarie Harbor will be retracted -- a sure fire way to kick Tassal hard in the crotch.

But whatever it is, breaking ranks so publicly is not proving the greatest public relations exercise for the Australian salmon industry, Huon included.

The tensions behind the story have grabbed the imagination of the Australian press, who publish stories daily littered with tit-for-tat comments and stakeholder speculation.

Before the court action even began, an expose by Australia's ABC network, which aired at the end of last year, had already cast a fairly devastating dark shadow over the industry, speaking of chemicals, intensive farming and "a corporate culture far removed from the marketing image of a wild salmon leaping from a pristine river."

It also very obviously pitted Huon against Tassal with a stark and somewhat sensationalist angle around two opposing companies: one who is clearly angled as giving a damn, and one who appears to…not.

Maybe it’s accurate, but I suspect nothing is quite that simple.

What’s important to note here is that very few companies come out of such publicly aired inter-industry battles smelling of roses.

Shareholders quickly tire of time and money spent on civil wars and buyers don’t take kindly to the marketing effort that is destroyed by them.

I remember in 2015 Avrim Lazar, covenor of the then newly formed Global Salmon Initiative (of which Huon is a member) telling me of the natural undercurrents of tension that ran between the companies and regions that made up the group.

"These are also naturally competitive people: if you read the grade school reports of these CEOs they will rarely say 'plays nicely with others.'"

"But," he added, "they also share a love of the industry, and a common passion for the product."

The industry has enough naysayers as it is, and while it may seem like a great idea to drive a wedge between you and your competitors with a view to differentiation, it is probably far more prudent to work together for a common solution... preferably behind closed doors.

While, for now, angry local opponents to the growth of the salmon farming industry spit the name "Tassal" from between gritted teeth, it is unlikely that consumers will differentiate for long and Huon needs to be careful not to tar its own fish with the same brush it is apparently tarring Tassal with.

Comments? Contact rachel.mutter@intrafish.com

Twitter: @rachelintrafish

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