The iron ore billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has waded into Tasmania’s controversial salmon industry investing almost $20m in the troubled Huon Aquaculture Group.
Through his family’s private investment arm, Tattarang, Forrest has hauled in a 7.33% stake in the Tasmanian salmon farmer, with a statement made to the Australian Stock Exchange late on Monday confirming the purchase.
The investment comes during a period of significant turmoil for Tasmania’s $800m salmon farming industry. Conservationists in the state have been waging a campaign against the industry amid growing concerns about its impact on the state’s environment, and earlier this year the company announced it would launch a strategic review after posting a $95.3m loss on the back of Covid-19.
In February, Huon said it would carry out a “strategic review” of its operations as it received unsolicited offers for the business. That review was still ongoing, and the salmon farmer was not expected to announce the outcome until its full-year report to investors in late July or August.
Forrest’s investment in the business is set against a backdrop of an increasingly tense campaign over the environmental impact of one of the state’s key industries.
In April the award-winning author Richard Flanagan released a book, Toxic, arguing that the industry is devastating the local environment, while state authorities are failing to regulate it.
Flanagan accused the industry of “an elaborate and highly successful con job” over the environmental impact of salmon farming.
In the lead-up to the recent state election, an expert who quit the government panel charged with overseeing the salmon industry’s expansion went public with concerns a planned doubling of production over the next decade was not scientifically sound.
Louise Cherrie, an environmental consultant who previously sat on the marine farming planning review panel, said she and one other expert had resigned over a range of concerns about the industry’s expansion into Storm Bay, south of Hobart.
The three companies operating in the state – Huon Aquaculture, Tassal and Petuna – have been given initial approval to farm a combined total of 30,000 tonnes of salmon in Storm Bay, with the potential for that to more than double.
But conservationists including Environment Tasmania, the state’s peak environment group, have been stepping up their pressure against the industry. On the back of the release of Flanagan’s book, the group has ramped up consumer marketing campaigns urging major supermarket retailers and celebrity chefs not to use Tasmanian salmon.
The campaign has been bolstered by polling showing a majority of Tasmanians have concerns about the environmental impact of the industry.
The industry has dismissed claims in Flanagan’s book, with the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association, which represents the major companies, saying it was a “strong, highly regulated, longstanding salmon industry of which we should all be proud”.
The investment is not Forrest’s first foray into the aquaculture industry. Last year the Australian Financial Review reported that through Tattarang the mining billionaire had already secured hundreds of acres of aquaculture leases with ambitions to farm fin fish as well as shellfish in waters off Western Australia.
In a statement, Tattarang chief investment officer John Hartman said Huon was “recognised internationally for producing and showcasing some of Australia’s best aquaculture products with the rest of the world”.
“We have a deep respect for the business that Peter and Frances Bender have created as well as their ongoing commitment to invest in new technologies and procedures that can further enhance the long-term sustainability of Australian aquaculture,” Hartman said.