Abalone Disease Devastation

By-David King

Abalone Disease Devastation

Diver harvesting abalone at Seal Rocks (Blue Water Hunting P/L)

Abalone Disease Devastation

Blacklip abalone showing swollen mouth and curled edges of foot. (image at Murrels Beach by Victorian Abalone Divers Assn)

Australian fisheries officers and divers in Tasmania and South Australia are on alert for signs of a lethal abalone virus which has devastated stocks in Victorian waters.

The disease, known as the ganglioneuritis virus, was first detected in December 2005 in two land-based aquaculture farms, one in Portland and one in Port Fairy, and in two experimental sea-based farms in Western Port.

While it appears to have been contained at Western Port, it was found by early May 2006 to have spread from the land-based farms to reefs off Port Fairy.

Despite efforts to contain it by aquaculture farms and professional abalone divers, the ganglioneuritis virus continued to spread to over 200 kilometres of Victorian coastline from Cape Nelson near Portland to Childers Cove east of Warrnambool.

The virus causes inflammation of the abalone’s nervous tissue resulting in curling of the front and swelling of the mouth. It appears similar to viruses found in abalone in Japan and Taiwan.

According to the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), the virus has no known or likely harmful effects on humans. But it has caused massive losses to the Victorian abalone industry which has an export value in excess of $75 million a year.

Vin Gannon, chief executive of the Victorian Abalone Divers Association (VADA), said the total capital loss to the industry, taking into account the cost of licenses, boats, factories, and salaries would be around $400 million.

Harry Peeters, chief executive of the Western Abalone Divers Association (WADA), told the Warrnambool Standard that divers and deckhands in his zone had seen a massive drop in their incomes due to the spread of the virus.

An abalone diver with 40 years experience told the ABC’s Stateline programme of paralysed and dying abalone lying on the seafloor in such a state that not even other marine animals would touch them.

Mr Gannon said no one quite knew how or why the virus was spreading.Aquaculture farms found to be infected had voluntarily destocked and decontaminated their premises and equipment, and most boats and divers had done the same.

He said there was a possibility of tidal flow carrying the disease, and of accidental contamination by recreational divers and others who could be unaware of the problem.

South Australia Fisheries director, Will Zacharin, told the ABC there was little they could do to stop the virus if it spread to South Australian waters because they were unsure how to deal with it.

Mr Gannon said the VADA wanted the entire 200km (approx) area of infected coastline officially shut down to commercial and recreational abalone fishing, but the state government had so far declined to impose a ban.

According to its website, the DPI (Victoria) had imposed a Temporary Abalone Closure Zone extending one kilometre between The Crags and Killarney Beach car parks in Port Fairy.

The DPI had also developed and issued protocols to minimise risk of spreading the disease. The protocols included:

• Decontamination with soapy freshwater of vessels, wet suits, dive equipment, catch bags, boxes, and people who come into contact with abalone, and

• Appropriate disposal of abalone shell, meat, and gut. The DPI website said it was conducting surveillance and monitoring of wild abalone populations, and inspections of abalone aquaculture farms.

But Mr Gannon described the DPI’s response as highly unsatisfactory from the abalone industry’s point of view.

‘We don’t feel they’re doing enough to make this a public issue and to make people aware of it,’ he said.

‘This is an environmental catastrophe and may lead to permanent changes to the marine eco-system. Every effort should be put in place to stop or slow the spread of the virus, in order to protect the environment for the future.’ A DPI spokesperson for the issue failed to return calls requesting a response to abalone divers’ concerns.

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The New Zealand position: New Zealand paua are very distantly related to other abalone species, having been isolated since the break-up of Gondwanaland. They may not therefore have the latent herpesvirus infection. Our geographical position almost certainly would prevent the natural spread of the virus to New Zealand. Other routes of introduction maybe by importation of some products of Australian abalone, not treated to kill the virus and introduction of contaminated gear may be possible as some WADA divers have paua quota in New Zealand. However, given the industry organisation and awareness of Western Abalone Divers Association divers it is unlikely that contaminated gear would be moved between Australia and New Zealand by the WADA members holding quota in New Zealand.

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