Coles and Woolworths seafood packaging altered to expose 'dark secret' to shoppers

Campaigners have disputed the supermarkets' sustainability claims advertised on the salmon they sell.

Left - the front of the Coles supermarket at Bondi Junction Westfield. Right - close up of Woolworths' salmon. With a yellow circle around an extinction warning sticker.
A new sticker campaign is warning Coles and Woolworths salmon could be complicit in causing extinction. Source: Supplied

Next time you’re walking by the Coles or Woolworths seafood aisle you might notice a small sticker on salmon packets reading: Warning Extinction Risk.

Unsurprisingly they haven’t been stuck there by the supermarkets themselves. Instead they’re part of a guerrilla consumer advocacy campaign designed to help shoppers understand that some Woolworths and Coles salmon products have been linked to the demise of a stingray-like creature called the Maugean skate — you can read more about it here.

The stickers are the creation of conservationists at the Bob Brown Foundation. The charity’s members are frustrated by controversial claims by Coles and Woolworths that all of their own-brand salmon is “sustainably sourced” even though some of it comes from Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour.

That location is important because it’s where all of the world’s remaining 1,000 Maugean skates live. And experts have warned the industrial salmon industry is contributing to their impending extinction because its waste reduces oxygen levels in the water.

“If you’re a conscious and shopper looking at own-brand Coles or Woolworths salmon, there’s absolutely no way for you to tell where it comes from," Bob Brown Foundation’s Alistair Allan told Yahoo News.

“Whether it’s farmed in Macquarie Harbour, or farmed in the Huon Channel there’s nothing to distinguish it. There’s no way to tell if this product has this dark secret lying underneath that’s driving an animal to extinction.

“It’s up to them to provide clear, obvious and truthful labelling to their consumers.”

Coles told Yahoo it is “aware of concerns regarding the population status of the Maugean Skate in Macquarie Harbour” and it is “working with relevant stakeholders to better understand the status of skate populations and the impact of salmon farming in Macquarie Harbour”.

“We continue to review the Coles Responsibly Sourced Seafood Program to reduce potential environmental impacts linked to seafood production,” it added.

Tasmania's maugean skate on the bottom of Macquarie Harbour.
Tasmania's maugean skate could be extinct in less than a decade. Source: Jane Rucker/IMAS

But salmon farming industry opponent Bob Brown Foundation claims the reviews are too slow. It met with the Coles close to a year ago, and since then the charity has accused the supermarket of stalling.

“Every time we try to follow up, they always say we need more time. But the Maugean Skate has very little time,” Allan claimed in reference to the species numbers dropping 47 per cent between 2014 and 2021.

Woolworths told Yahoo it will “continue to closely monitor” the situation for developments. “We note that the industry, state and federal governments are taking this matter seriously and that a review is underway along with investment into research to better understand the issue and protect the Maugean skate,” it said.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is undertaking a review on whether to continue to allow licensing of salmon farming in Macquarie Harbour, but conservationists have accused her of working too slowly. And yesterday they unveiled a new poster outside her Surry Hills electorate office warning the Maugean skate could be the first animal to be declared extinct under the watch of the Albanese government.

But the salmon industry claims it is being unfairly targeted by activist groups and its operations are one of many factors, including climate change, gill-net fishing, and historical mining sediment that contribute to water quality issues. It claims to be working to reduce the impact of its environmental footprint with new technology.

“We are also the only industry taking action investing millions into a major oxygenation project, to test whether this technology can better stabilise dissolved oxygen levels in the harbour,” Salmon Tasmania CEO Luke Martin told The Mercury on Monday.

Industrial salmon farms in Macquarie Harbour.
The salmon farming industry claims its being unfairly targeted. Source: Getty

Salmon labelling concerns were raised during a Senate inquiry into Greenwashing on Friday, during which representatives from the supermarkets were quizzed about their labelling claims.

Responding to the evidence, Independent Senator David Pocock said he “certainly won’t be trusting any [sustainability] certification that Coles or Woolworths put on [packets”.

Inquiry chair Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was also scathing. “The point is [certification] is not working, the evidence we’ve got is that the Maugean skate is facing extinction… and yet here you are putting your own label, your own logo on your own product to send a message to consumers that everything is okay.”

This week, Coles and Woolworths told Yahoo News their salmon is third party certified.

But the Bob Brown Foundation argues the guidelines for certification are clearly too weak, or the supermarkets wouldn’t be able to make sustainability claims on products that contribute to the destruction of an endangered species.

“What’s crazy is only 11 per cent of Tasmanian salmon comes out of Macquarie Harbour. So the supermarkets could source their salmon from other parts of Tasmania, and they’d be washing their hands of making their customers complicit in extinction,” Allan said.

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