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Salmon farms under pressure amid 'catastrophic' impact on dwindling species: 'A high risk of extinction … in the near future'

"Failure to [take action] will have implications for the long-term viability of important regional industries and jobs."

“Failure to [take action] will have implications for the long-term viability of important regional industries and jobs."

Photo Credit: iStock

Salmon farms in Tasmania could face new restrictions in an effort to save another fish that may be just one extreme weather event away from extinction.  

What's happening?

Australia's Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, recently wrote to the Tasmanian government to announce that she may reconsider regulations on salmon farming in the state's Macquarie Harbour, the Guardian reported. The goal is to protect the critically endangered Maugean skate.

This ancient fish — whose population dipped 47% between 2014 and 2021, according to the Guardian — is thought to be found only in this harbor. Threats to the species include the salmon industry, hydropower stations that alter upstream river flows, gillnet fishing, and rising water temperatures due to a warming planet.

Experts from a skate recovery team recommended better regulation and monitoring of lower salmon farming industry loads as one essential step to protect the species.

Why is the Maugean skate decline concerning? 

In September, Australia's threatened species committee reported that "substantial recent evidence indicates a high risk of extinction for the species in the near future."

If the skate disappears, it could have cascading effects in the region.

"Failure to [take action] will have implications for the long-term viability of important regional industries and jobs, especially in tourism and aquaculture," Plibersek said in the letter to Tasmania.

Scientists from the University of Tasmania said that these skates could be just "one extreme weather event from extinction," per the Guardian.

This isn't the first time that industrial salmon farming has impacted the local environment, either. 

In August, about 3,500 farm-raised salmon escaped into Icelandic waters. They were soon reported in at least 32 rivers across northwest Iceland, and scientists fear that interbreeding between farm-raised and wild salmon could endanger the wild population by speeding up sexual maturity and ultimately making it more difficult for the fish to reproduce. 

The skate also represents a bigger extinction crisis facing our planet — more than 1 million species are on the brink, as Reuters has reported. 

This includes a plethora of ocean-dwelling species like the sunflower sea star. Nearly 90% of its population was wiped out between 2013 and 2017 due to a wasting disease, which scientists think could be tied to a warming planet. However, being added to the Endangered Species List could help this creature to recover through increased protections, according to conservationists.

What's being done about the Maugean skate decline?

Plibersek said that environment officials were examining three requests from the Bob Brown Foundation and Environmental Defenders' Office to assess whether the salmon industry has the necessary environmental approvals to operate in Macquarie Harbor.

The Australian minister said that if these approvals are not found, the industry would have to temporarily pause operations until they sought approvals, the Guardian reported.

Meanwhile, both the Tasmanian and Australian governments recently announced that they would invest $2.1 million to set up a captive skate breeding program in order to create an "insurance population" of the species. 

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