Paper mountain failed to stop devastating prawn disease

Paper mountain failed to stop devastating prawn disease


White spot disease

A juvenile black tiger prawn with white spot disease.

Federal bureaucrats generated up to one million documents during a now criticised fight against the importa­tion of white spot disease that wiped out Queensland’s prawn farming industry and spread into open waters.

A Senate-led investigation into Australia’s worst outbreak of the disease has unearthed a mountain of paperwork within the Department of Agriculture relating to the threat, detection and handling of the disease after being tipped off about widespread rorting of bio­security measures last year.

All prawn farms in southern Queensland — on the Logan River, south of Brisbane — have had to destroy their produce since November, with the highly-contagiou­s disease detected in wild prawns caught off Brisbane.

It is strongly suspected that the disease arrived in Australia via imported prawns, with local farmers and fishermen blaming poor monitoring and inspections of importations by biosecurity officers.

The Senate rural and regional affairs committee had sought all documents relating to the department’s investig­ation, Operation Cattai, the detection and subsequent handling of the outbreak between­ March, last year and February this year.

In a letter this month to the committee chairman Barry O’Sullivan, departmental secretary Daryl Quinlivan detailed that almost­ one million documents had been identified as possibly being relevant to the outbreak.

The documents include more than 230,000 emails, 10 archive boxes of paper documents and 697,000 documents on hard drives. Mr Quinlivan said only a fraction of the documents — about 75,000 — had been specific­ally reviewed for their relevance. “The department has about 30 staff diverted to the document review­ process full-time,’’ he said. “The review is averaging about 12,000 documents per day.’’

The Senate inquiry is expected to be endorsed today and to begin quickly, with an initial report to be provided by June.

Earlier this year, Senator O’Sullivan said it was “out­rageous” that biosecurity officers had not been sacked, despite having ignored guidelines and failing to detect potential corruption which had led to the outbreak. In a hearing, first assistant secretary for compliance Raelene Vivian said the department launched Operatio­n Cattai to investigate importers after intelligence in late 2015 indicated widespread rorting of the system at the border.

Investigators discovered bio­sec­urity officers had failed to follow procedures and allowed import­ers to supply their own samples rather than taking them randomly. “We did discover early on that some of our officers were not following work procedures,” Ms Vivian said.

The hearing was told up to 25 of 40 prawn importers had been targeted in investigations with “elevated” concerns about 13. Officials introduced tougher inspection measures and began testing in supermarkets, finding high rates of white spots in imported prawns.

The disease, not harmful to humans, spread to the prawn farms along the Logan River after infected prawns were used as bait.

Last month, prawn farmers attacked the federal government over its call for them to pay a third of an industry assistance package. In a letter to the Australian Prawn Farmers Association, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said any payment would be through a “cost-sharing arrangement” split evenly between the federal and state governments and industry.

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