HOBART, AUSTRALIA — IT'S time to throw the salmon on the barbie.The first fish of the season are now heading to market in Sydney and Melbourne and within the next month salmon farmers will begin shipping the delicacy to Japan, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and the West Coast of the United States. From September to March diners will feast on Atlantic Salmon, one of the newest crops in Tasmania. In only its third commercial season, the industry has gone from the experimental stage to annual production of 3,000 tons of salmon worth $35 million to $40 million (Australian; US$27 million to $31 million). "The key is the clean environment," says Phil Cooper, marketing manager for Tassal Limited, which produces 52 percent of the salmon and has sales of $25 million. The baby fish, called smolt, are grown in the clean fresh waters of Tasmania. They are then moved into brackish water and eventually into the crystal clear water of the Southern Ocean. There are no pollutants in the water and the temperature (about 15 degrees C) is optimal to keep the fish stress-free. "Stress makes them more open to disease," says Julian Amos, executive officer of the Salmon Growers Association. Although no one knows the reason why, Tasmanian salmon mature a year earlier than salmon grown in the Northern hemisphere. And Mr. Cooper claims the Tasmanian salmon taste better as well. As proof, he points out the Japanese - the largest market for salmon - are willing to pay an extra $2 per kilo for the Tasmanian salmon. Tassal will ship 1,000 tons of salmon to Japan this year. In fact, a Japanese company, Kokan Mining Company, owns one of the salmon farmers, Aquatas Proprietary Limited, which ships about 50 percent of its 680 tons of production to Japan. The Tasmanian salmon industry got its start in the early 1980s, when the Tasmania Fisheries Development Authority purchased some salmon that originated in Nova Scotia to see if they would thrive in Tasmanian waters. A Norwegian company, Noraqua, approached the government and suggested a joint venture. The joint venture, called Salmon Enterprises of Tasmania (Saltas) established the hatchery and began producing salmon. After some initial problems, the hatchery started producing 1 million baby salmon a year. Unfortunately, this was far too many fish. "The domestic market was only half as big as they thought it was," Dr. Amos says. Some of the companies that became involved in production merged or went out of business. The Norwegian company, in fact, is now trying to sell its stake. Amos says the industry now has production costs under control. Current policy is to limit production to 1 million smolt per year. In the meantime, it is trying to develop the domestic and export markets. The industry began by selling the fish to four- and five-star hotels, since the patrons were ready to buy quality salmon. Now, the industry is trying to broaden salmon's appeal. Aquatas, for example, has just signed an agreement to sell its salmon in New South Wales at Woolworth and Coles, the two largest food retailers. Ian Aldridge, marketing manager, says Aquatas is shipping the salmon in "modified atmosphere packs," filled with a neutral atmosphere (no oxygen) which extends the shelf life of the fish. It will be tough slogging. In Australia, salmon retails for about $18 to $22 per kilo for fillets. By way of contrast, chicken was recently selling for $4.99 per kilo and rump steak for $12.59 per kilo at Woolworth. The third largest producer, Nortas is concentrating on the "value-added" market by selling smoked salmon and minced salmon used in pates and terrines. In the export markets, Tasmania has lots of competition from farmers in Norway, Canada, the US, Chile, and Britain.