Australian prawn farmers claim biosecurity undermined by trade considerations

August 10, 2018: The ABC reports that until recently, Australia had been free of the deadly white spot prawn disease which is harmless to people but has the potential to wipe out both farmed and wild prawns. Quarantine border checks were intended to prevent the disease from being imported in raw prawns.

The ABC reports that, despite an outbreak of the disease in Queensland in 2016 documented by Four Corners, the Federal government had not revealed that two of 101 retail samples taken from Melbourne and Sydney retail outlets in May and June  2018 returned strong positives for white spot disease, while another four returned weak positives. In 2016, seven prawn farms at Logan, near the Gold Coast, had to destroy all their stock.

In contrast, when white spot was confirmed in 2016 in the wild in Moreton Bay, after quarantine regulations were tightened, the Queensland Government imposed a movement restriction order for raw wild caught prawns, crustaceans and marine worms between Caloundra and the New South Wales border.

In December 2017 a report by Australia's inspector-general of biosecurity, Dr Helen Scott-Orr, found a major biosecurity failure likely led to the 2016 outbreak. More than a $100 million of taxpayer money has since been spent on compensation, clean-up, monitoring and increased border security.

Containers of imported prawns are now required to be tested for the virus at the country of origin and again when they reach Australia, but the recent Melbourne and Sydney evidence shows this may not be effective.

The ABC reports that the Queensland Seafood Industry Association believes the differences between the response from the state and federal governments boiled down to international trade.

"Unfortunately our industry has been sacrificed on that altar of trade and it's never been good enough,” said the Association spokesperson, Mr Eric Perez.

“If we put restrictions on then suddenly, 'Oh well you export to our countries, what if we put restrictions on what you export out' so it is a trade issue," Mr Perez said.

"The Government will never admit to that but that's the reality that we face.”

The Australian Prawn Farmers Association wants imported raw prawns to be cooked before release into the market. They see this as taking white spot virus as seriously as foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.