AN $82 MILLION class action is seeking compensation after the catastrophic wipe-out of one-third of Australia’s abalone industry following the Victorian government’s alleged failure to control an outbreak of a herpes-like virus in the south-west.
Maurice Blackburn is acting on behalf of 10 licence holders who controlled 32 per cent of Australia’s abalone exports which generated $70 million annually.
A trial is scheduled to begin in the Victorian Supreme Court next month.
The once lucrative industry was ravaged in early 2006 when the disease spread from an aquaculture farm west of Port Fairy into the ocean.
At the time, the member for South West Cost, now Victorian Premier, Denis Napthine accused the then Labor-led Bracks government of “absolute failure’’ to control the outbreak.
Maurice Blackburn principal Jacob Varghese said the owner of the farm, Southern Ocean Mariculture, reported the outbreak to the Department of Primary Industries, but the DPI failed to shut down the farm, allowing it to continue to pump contaminated water into the ocean.
Infected wild abalone were found soon after on a reef nearby, he said.
Over the next few years the virus, which has a death rate of at least 90 per cent, spread from the South Australia-Victoria border to Cape Otway. Mr Varghese said life savings have been lost with commercial licences plunging in value from $6 million to below $1 million since 2006.
He said before the outbreak the virus-affected area, called the western zone, accounted for about 32 per cent of Australia’s abalone exports, most of which went to Asia where it is considered a luxury food.
“Before the virus they were talking 220 tonnes (a year) out of the western zone. That has dropped to about 16 tonnes, so it’s a huge drop,’’ Mr Varghese said.
“There are a couple of licence holders who have liquidated, forced to sell up, while others have retired. Then there are others who are just holding on, hoping things improve.’’
But it could take decades for the western zone to fully recover from the virus — something Dr Napthine, acknowledged in a series of parliamentary speeches in 2007 and 2008.
“The time lag to recover from this disease could be five, 10 or 15 years. This is absolutely devastating,’’ Dr Napthine, a former veterinarian, said.
“I have described it previously as ‘the foot-and-mouth of the sea’ or ‘the foot-and-mouth of the abalone industry’.
“If we had foot-and-mouth in our livestock in Victoria, we would have a massive response by all states and territories — all resources would be put into dealing with that disease — yet little or nothing has been done in this instance.’’
In another speech, he said: “The abalone virus is costing our abalone industry hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars, and it threatens the very future of our major fishery, which is one of the few remaining wild-catch abalone industries in the world”.
Dr Napthine declined to comment to Fairfax Media yesterday because the case is now before the courts.
Maurice Blackburn is representing 10 of the 14 of the western zone’s abalone licence holders in the action against the state government and Southern Ocean Mariculture.