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Shell shocked: 'escaped' virus ruins stocks

AUSTRALIA - Australia's multibillion-dollar abalone industry could face ruin and is blaming Victoria's Government in action for allowing a deadly virus to jump from contaminated farm stocks to the world's last unspoilt wild abalone fisheries.

With waters in the south-west of the state in crisis, a diver turns to Port Phillip Bay to look for healthy stocks of abalone.

About 500 jobs in Victoria alone are at risk from the virus, which in less than a year has devastated key fisheries scattered along 200 kilometres of the state's south-western coast.

The herpes-like disease kills up to 95 per cent of abalone it infects. Tasmania has imposed strict biosecurity measures to try to stop it crossing Bass Strait. The potential for devastation has prompted one government fisheries researcher to criticise his own department for ignoring the disease until it was too late.

"The abalone is being absolutely annihilated," the researcher said. "People who have dived there for 40 years have never seen anything like it."

South-eastern Australia has the world's most lucrative wild abalone fishery, and one of the last in the world where consistently high yields are common.

The Victorian abalone fishery is the most valuable commercial fishery in the state, with $75 million in exports, mostly to Asia.

The Victorian Abalone Divers Association has called for Port Phillip Bay to be quarantined to try to contain the virus, although at least one expert says it might be too late.

Victorian Abalone Divers Association secretary Vin Gannon said Fisheries Victoria had already reduced the annual quota by 170 tonnes to about 1100 tonnes in response to the virus — costing the state millions of export dollars. As stocks die, quotas and exports will continue to be slashed to try to protect surviving abalone beds.

Mr Gannon said the State Government should have ordered the destruction of farmed abalone and halted the pumping of effluent when the virus began infecting stock in December 2005, five months before it was detected in the wild near an infected farm at Port Fairy.

"This is an incredibly serious issue," Mr Gannon said. "Fisheries and Wildlife underestimated how bad the virus was going to be, and if they put quarantine areas in, it's an admission they were wrong. They are prepared to risk the entire industry and the environment."

Mr Gannon said the long-term environmental damage of the outbreak, which ranges from Childers Cove, east of Warrnambool, to Cape Bridgewater, west of Portland, would be worse than even the huge financial impact.

"It will potentially change the ecosystem forever," he said. "The concern is if the bottom of Bass Strait changes, it may never be receptive to abalone again. We have a virus that could travel all the way around Australia and destroy the whole abalone industry."

The industry has been reluctant to discuss the virus, which poses no threat to humans, because of fears it will damage its reputation overseas. But the growing threat that the industry may be destroyed after years of sustainable fishing saved it from poachers has prompted concerned groups to speak out. The Victorian National Parks Association has called for the Government to act urgently to combat the disease, which has ravaged at least one marine park.

Harry Peters, the executive officer of the Western Abalone Divers Association — hit hard by the virus — said the disease had stripped $70 million off the value of western zone diving licences alone.

He is demanding an independent inquiry to investigate why the Department of Primary Industries, which overseas Fisheries Victoria, did not order the destruction of farm stock when the virus was detected.

"This is the worst environmental disaster ever seen in the south-west of Victoria," he said.