Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has hit out at seafood importers suspected of knowingly selling diseased prawns, comparing them to sporting drug cheats.
STAN GRANT, PRESENTER: Australia’s prawn industry is being ravaged by a disease brought into this country by importers deliberately breaking Australia’s strict biosecurity rules.
Millions of prawns are being destroyed, as the search continues for the source of the outbreak.
The Federal Government has banned prawn imports – but farmers say it is too little, too late.
Michael Atkin reports that consumers will pay the cost, too, with higher prices.
MICHAEL ATKIN, REPORTER: At this farm in southern Queensland, half a millions prawns are about to die a slow and traumatic death.
NICK MOORE, PRAWN FARMER: Their gills are getting torn apart by the chlorine, it is a pretty horrible death.
It’s certainly not a way the prawn farmers may have chosen if they had an option.
MICHAEL ATKIN: 20,000 litres of chlorine is being pumped into their pond. As the water begins to change colour, the prawns begin leaping out – gasping for air.
NICK MOORE: To watch ’em die like this is pretty bad. It’s as bad as it gets, actually.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Why do you want people to see this?
NICK MOORE: I think everyone needs to know exactly what is happening. This is a major, major problem on the Logan River.
This is something that could have easily been, well, we think, as farmers, it could have easily been avoided.
MICHAEL ATKIN: The chlorine kill is a major part of the emergency response to try and contain white spot disease, which threatens to wipe out a third of Australia’s prawn farms.
JIM THOMPSON, BIOSECURITY QUEENSLAND: We’ve had to move fast and we’ve had to destroy large numbers of ponds. There are other options. We didn’t believe those other options were viable or as safe as chlorine.
MICHAEL ATKIN: The virus is harmless to humans, but deadly for prawns, and responsible for decimating industries overseas.
JIM THOMPSON: It was first found in Asia in the early 1990s and worked its way down through Asia quite quickly, causing massive mortalities in many areas – up to 80 or 90 per cent of prawns in ponds.
It’s transmitted from animal to animal. It’s where high densities of animals are, you get that movement of the disease.
We’re also very concerned about the movement of prawns that are infected, by birds or by water.
MICHAEL ATKIN: White spot was first found here in late November. It’s now on four other farms.
Nick Moore’s farm is nearby, and he believes it’s being transmitted through the Logan River.
NICK MOORE: Well, where we are now is where the first white spot virus was discovered by the farmer.
MICHAEL ATKIN: It’s very close to you?
NICK MOORE: It’s about 3.5 river kilometres – we’re very close and the tidal running at the moment is running out very quickly.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Authorities are confident the disease is being contained.
JIM THOMPSON: More than 8,000 samples have been taken from the wild and we’ve only had six positive tests which were from the 5th of December, so we’re very hopeful that it is not too widely found in the wild.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Could these be some of the last undiseased prawns you pull up out of here?
MURRAY ZIPF, PRAWN FARMER: It’s only going to be a miracle that saves us now.
MICHAEL ATKIN: It’s little comfort for Murray Zipf, whose family is harvesting healthy prawns as fast as it can.
MURRAY ZIPF: Five farms have been affected now. The closest one’s only a couple of hundred metres across the paddock from me.
I have had an infected prawn in my outlet channel, sorry, an infected crab in my outlet channel so basically death is at my back door.
SERENA ZIPF: We’re talking about $25 million in product that has been chlorinated. We’re talking about 120 families who don’t know if they have a future and how do you recompense people for a lifetime’s work?
MICHAEL ATKIN: The big question is, how did it get here?
Many, including the Agriculture Minister, suspect it was infected green prawn imports.
BARNABY JOYCE, AGRICULTURE MINISTER: We had prawns at retail outlets that had the white spot disease.
Now, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out that even though it says fit for human consumption, someone could well put one on a hook and throw it in the river and try and catch a fish.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Two weeks ago Barnaby Joyce announced he was taking action.
BARNABY JOYCE: I’ve had the meeting with the department and now we are going to suspend the importation of green prawns.
MICHAEL ATKIN: The Agriculture Department suspects five rogue importers have been cheating Australia’s quarantine system.
BARNABY JOYCE: The prawn from the shop have got white spot and then you can basically work your way backwards from there.
MICHAEL ATKIN: 7.30 can reveal that the department is investigating allegations importers have been concluding by submitting clean product for testing while hiding infected product and deliberately mislabelling product so it won’t be tested.
BARNABY JOYCE: There is a strong case that people have been swapping prawns. They have been going through the process of the testing, but just like urine swaps for, you know, rogue footy players, they were offering up a batch of prawns they knew full well didn’t so we’ll nail them.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Criminal charges are being pursued against Chinese company, Sino.
BARNABY JOYCE: If they think that their bottom line is more important than our biosecurity, well they’re going to have a rude shock and if that means they’re going to spend a bit of time at her Majesty’s pleasure, well so be it.
HARRY PETERS, IMPORTER: We are a quarantine-approved premises here. If I wanted to, I could take product, substitute it for the inspector – nobody would know. But we don’t do that.
MICHAEL ATKIN: The gaps in the quarantine system are well known to veteran Sydney importer. Harry Peters.
He wants them closed and dodgy operators banned.
HARRY PETERS: They’re in trouble. And you’d be surprised at the number of people that have come forward volunteering information, simply to protect their own business.
MICHAEL ATKIN: The blanket ban means all importers have been punished and prawn supplies are running out.
WORKER: That’s the last of ’em, no more after that.
HARRY PETERS: We believe that the loss will be in excess of $500 million for the next six months.
That’s pretty devastating.
MICHAEL ATKIN: But prawn farmers have little sympathy. They are furious, saying they’ve warned successive federal governments about imported prawns for more than a decade.
SERENA ZIPF: The importers have long ago identified where the holes were and have been exploiting them in the system.
So I think that the farmers will be not satisfied with anything less than a full review of the importation regulations.
NICK MOORE: Pretty bloody angry, actually, because that’s what we’ve been, that’s one of the ways that we were saying people were dodging the tests in the first place.
MICHAEL ATKIN: Nick Moore is hopeful his farm can win the fight against white spot disease and survive. But he knows some farms won’t make it and many staff will lose their jobs.
NICK MOORE: Well, for me personally, it’s the devastation, after 30 years of prawn farming. But it’s the staff and the people that own this, the people who have built this from the ground up.
Every farm that has been damaged or destroyed basically so far is a family business that has been here for 25 years or more.
This is not just an industry – it’s their life.