By Lynda Delacey
Frances Bender, co-owner of the Tasmanian fish farm and processing business Huon Aquaculture, says her land-farming friends are astonished when they hear she has a veterinarian on permanent staff. Their assumption is that the vet looks after sick fish, but that is not the case.
“It’s to make sure the fish don’t get sick!” she says.
“It’s about being proactive, not reactive.”
Frances and Peter Bender’s commitment to protecting the health of their farm was recognised at the annual Australian Farmer of the Year Awards on 12 September 2013.
They were awarded the Biosecurity Farmer of the Year Award in the animal category, becoming the first aquaculture business ever to win the award.
The Biosecurity Farmer of the Year Award is sponsored by Farm Biosecurity, a joint initiative of Animal Health Australia (AHA) and Plant Health Australia (PHA).
Biosecurity is the set of measures that are taken to protect a farm (or region) from the entry and spread of pests and diseases, and to prevent the spread of any disease, pest or parasite that does enter the area.
Duncan Rowland, executive manager of biosecurity services at AHA, says Huon Aquaculture stood out from its competitors for several reasons. One was their whole-of-chain biosecurity plan, which makes biosecurity “everybody’s business” and central to its operations.
Another was the extensive work the company does to raise the profile of biosecurity issues in the industry and broader farming community.
“Biosecurity is about creating layers of protection at every level. It’s not just the government’s responsibility – it’s everybody’s responsibility,” Duncan Rowland says. “Peter and Frances’ approach is exemplary.”
Frances Bender says biosecurity has been central to their business model since they diversified from a family cattle farm to salmon and trout farming 25 years ago.
“In an aquaculture operation, biosecurity can mean the difference between operating and not operating. Because once a disease or parasite gets into a body of water, there is literally nothing you can do to keep it out.”
She says overseas diseases and parasites have wiped out farms.
“The worst example for me was in Chile, which had a thriving salmon-farming industry until infectious salmon anaemia disease went through the place. It was devastating: there were 25,000 direct jobs lost, in a country with no social security, no safety net. And all because of poor biosecurity practices.”
The waters of Tasmania are famously clean and pristine, and the Benders work diligently to keep it that way. Frances Bender says there is a perception that Australian farm produce will always be of high quality.
“But it takes work to protect what we have and keep it that way. Even in Tasmania, the waterways certainly don’t take care of themselves.”
The main health challenge for Huon Aquaculture is amoebic gill disease (AGD). AGD was first diagnosed in populations of Atlantic Salmon in Tasmania in the mid-1980s, and has since affected fish farms around the world.
Symptoms typically start from two months after fish are transferred from hatcheries to sea pens and can recur throughout the growth cycle. The most effective treatment involves transferring populations of fish into very large freshwater baths for two to three hours.
“AGD no longer causes any significant mortality and freshwater treatment is routine and low stress, but proactively managing it adds a lot to our production costs,” Frances Bender says.
Worldwide, AGD is estimated to cost the industry US$20 million (A$20.9 million) in treatments and lost productivity. Norwegian salmon and trout farms are now taking a strong interest in the way Huon Aquaculture manages the disease.
Frances Bender says that the learning curve involved in moving from a cattle farm to a fish farm has been “vertical”. But the basic principles of farming are the same: keep the stock well fed and stress free, and maintain the environment where stock live.
Today, Huon Aquaculture is one of three big salmon farms in Tasmania. It employs more than 450 staff in farming, processing and selling Atlantic Salmon and Rainbow Trout products to the domestic and international markets.
As the company has evolved, the biosecurity plan evolved with it. In 2012, the whole-of-chain biosecurity plan was put in place to cover all stages of fish production from the hatchery to the plate.
The plan incorporates education and training, and implementing good fish husbandry through quality management, health monitoring, vaccine use and ongoing research.
Creating the biosecurity plan meant examining every process and transaction that staff undertook on a daily basis. This included looking at where the fish stocks came from, how they were introduced into the farm, how they have been managed in the past and how they are managed now.
It also meant looking at details such as where the vehicles have been, and whether staff have been on other farms and areas where they could have been exposed to biosecurity risks.
“It comes down to a lot of little things such as disinfecting gumboots and diving equipment every single day,” Frances Bender says.
She says the biggest challenge in implementing the plan was educating new staff about the importance of biosecurity.
“Fortunately, our team has been very supportive. Also, we have some very experienced biologists and technical people across the business, and it’s part of their job description to manage biosecurity and keep looking for risks on a daily basis.”
Peter and Frances Bender are also involved in developing a state-wide comprehensive biosecurity plan that encourages collaboration between industry and government.
“We’ve been working with the Tasmanian Government and industry to develop very transparent and open communications about fish movements and possible risks,” Frances Bender says.
“Because the lesson to be learnt from overseas is that if everyone doesn’t follow the same rules, everyone suffers. So we’re working very proactively to put good biosecurity practices in place in the west and south coast of Tasmania.”
The Benders hope their business will continue to grow while maintaining its reputation as a premium producer.
“The challenge is to make the business scalable without diverting our focus on quality.”
To that end, the company is working to find appropriate markets to expand into, and is looking at innovations that might allow them to farm in rougher conditions further out to sea.
They are also working to continuously improve processes, which includes maintaining their British Retail Consortium accreditation (a gold standard of accreditation for food factories) as well as the European retailers standard for Good Agricultural Practices, which encourages sustainable agriculture and the minimisation of agrochemical inputs.
“We only pursue accreditation that has a meaningful improvement process that must be reviewed at least once a year to make sure we’re doing our job in the best possible way,” Frances Bender says.
“It’s a waste of time to just get a certificate to put on the wall.”
She attributes the company’s success to a fastidious attention to detail and quality.
The Benders view biosecurity practices as simply part of that commitment to quality.
“It’s like putting on a seatbelt,” she says.
“Eventually it makes sense to most people and just becomes routine.”