Mystery virus wreaks havoc

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
26 February 2007, at 12:00am

VICTORIA - Abalone means rich pickings for some, but now a devastating virus is putting a dent in the state's $80 million share of the market. Paul Heinrichs reports that scientists are at a loss to explain how the virus appeared, where it came from, or what to do about it.

Dead Abalone on beaches west of Port Fairy

Victoria's $80 million abalone industry, which turned $2 fishing licence holders into multi-millionaires, is experiencing its first big setback with the spread of a devastating new virus.

The industry contributes to Australia's supplying half the world's abalone but has become bitterly divided by suspicions that the disease might have spread from farms to the wild stocks.

Abalone, a rich-tasting and costly shellfish, is being wiped out in western Victorian waters by a herpes-like virus known as ganglioneuritis. The virus was unknown until it was first noticed 15 months ago on commercial abalone farms at Portland and near Port Fairy.

It is not known to have any ill effects on people, but infected abalone, which lose their grip on undersea rocks and eventually die, are not being harvested.

After the virus reappeared last May, the farms voluntarily quarantined themselves, sacrificed abalone stock worth millions of dollars and decontaminated equipment.

But the virus appeared in the sea off Port Fairy at the same time and has now spread east to Warrnambool 25 kilometres away and west to Portland, wiping an estimated $45 million from western region licence values.

Now the Victorian Abalone Divers Association, which represents the majority central region from Warrnambool to Lakes Entrance, is taking drastic steps to try to prevent the virus spreading to its lucrative waters.

It wants a voluntary ban on all fishing between Warrnambool and Port Campbell to make sure human activity does not inadvertently contribute to the spread.

Fisheries Victoria has also come under attack from state Opposition agriculture spokesman John Vogels, who accuses it of having been "very slack" in not quarantining the initial outbreaks, a charge it denies.