WORLD-FIRST research will take place along south-west Victoria’s coastline to determine the health of wild blacklip abalone stocks in the wake of a devastating virus.
Scientists from Deakin University Warrnambool and Melbourne University will use high-resolution pictures of the seafloor and genetic technology along with catch data from local divers.
The $100,000 project is expected to take about 12 months to complete.
It has support from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, Western Abalone Divers’ Association, Department of Primary Industries and the University of Tasmania.
Outbreaks of viral ganglioneuritis six years ago near Port Fairy and Portland spread along the coast and cost the industry millions of dollars in lost income.
The virus has also been detected in Tasmania.
Although no fresh outbreaks have been detected between the Hopkins River mouth and the South Australian border since 2007, catches since have been minimal compared with the boom years when it was one of the region’s biggest export earners.
Western Abalone Divers’ Association executive officer Harry Peeters told The Standard yesterday operators had been hit hard.
“Before the virus struck there were 14 licence holders and 14 divers, now there are only six divers,” he said.
“The value of licences went from upwards of $6.4 million to less than $1m.
“This new research has never been done before anywhere in the world. We are so lucky to have Deakin University in Warrnambool.
“The research project will use data from divers including GPS details of where abalone was caught and the size.
“Stocks will recover in nature’s timeframe, not man’s time.”
Deakin University’s Dr Daniel Ierodiaconou said the research aimed to gain a better understanding of the species’ habitat requirements and genetic composition.
“When abalone spawn they spawn into the water column and eventually settle on the reefs,” he said. “Where young abalone end up is dependent on ocean currents and availability of appropriate habitat.”
This research builds on Dr Ierodiaconou’s previous work in mapping the Victorian sea floor for a state government project. It uses light detection and ranging data originally collected for storm surge modelling.
Melbourne University’s Dr Adam Miller said better understanding of genetic variation across the fishery would identify areas of the reef harbouring vulnerable abalone.
“This information will help managers prioritise intervention such as reseeding or moving populations as well as monitoring recovery,” he said.
Meanwhile, the divers’ association has sent a submission to the government’s future fishing strategy criticising lack of consultation.
“We are already committed to achieving a sustainable industry and are more than happy to sit down in discussions,” Mr Peeters said.
“It can be done at minimal cost. Our advice is, don’t re-invent the wheel.”