A HERPES-LIKE virus that wiped out one-third of Australia’s wild abalone industry spread after an aquaculture farm failed to properly clean out its tanks — and what’s more the Victorian government knew it — a court has heard.
Abalone licence-holders began their $82 million class action against the Victorian government in the Supreme Court yesterday.
The plaintiffs’ counsel David Curtain SC said the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) failed to control the outbreak of the disease after it spread from the Southern Ocean Mariculture farm near Port Fairy into open waters in early 2006.
The disease has since ravaged wild abalone stocks from the Victorian/South Australian border to Cape Otway, as well as eroded life savings, with the value of commercial abalone licences plunging from about $6 million before the outbreak to less than $1 million.
Mr Curtain said the virus first surfaced in January 2006, when Southern Ocean Mariculture imported live abalone to use as brooding stock from interstate.
Initially the DPI couldn’t take enforcement action because the virus wasn’t listed in the livestock disease act.
But that changed a month later on February 9 when it was gazetted as an exotic disease.
Still, the department didn’t take any action, mainly because the farm managed to confine the disease to the property, disinfecting tanks with chlorine, while affected abalone were destroyed and buried.
The virus, which has a 95 per cent death rate, seemingly disappeared. But on March 23 there was another outbreak, which the DPI’s former chief vet Hugh Millar described as “explosive”.
By early April the disease had infected 81 of the farm’s 184 tanks, and in May abalone divers had detected the virus on a reef outside the property.
Mr Curtain alleged the disease was more virulent during the second outbreak because Southern Ocean Mariculture merely removed dead and affected abalone from the tanks, without disinfecting them or removing fish exposed to the virus.
This was despite, Mr Curtain said, evidence showing the disease was spread through the water column, not direct contact between infected and healthy abalone.
And the farm continued to pump 40 million litres of virus-infected water into the Southern Ocean each day.
“What we have got here is (the DPI) monitoring the wild but not doing anything to stop the virus-laden water being pumped in its millions of litres into the wild where there is a great proximity to abundant abalone,” Mr Curtain said, adding that then Labor agriculture minister Bob Cameron, Dr Millar and Fisheries Victoria executive director Peter Appleford were “vicariously liable” for the outbreak.
But defence counsel argued that there was no direct evidence when the virus escaped from the farm, and the DPI had to weigh up, in taking enforcement action, the possibility of an outbreak in the wild versus shutting down the mariculture farm, which would have caused an instant loss, with the death of about one million abalone.
The trial continues today.