White spot prawn disease now endemic to wild populations in Queensland’s Moreton Bay region


White spot disease is now endemic in wild prawn populations in south-east Queensland’s Moreton Bay region.

Authorities had previously been trying to eradicate the disease but will instead move to contain and control it.

Agriculture Minister Mark Furner told ABC Radio Brisbane the Aquatic Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Disease had declared the disease as “established in the wild”.

The new classification means efforts will no longer be focused on eradicating the virus but instead on containing and controlling it within the movement restricted zone.

Areas of Moreton Bay stretching from Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, to the New South Wales border and west to Ipswich, have been declared as “containment zones”.

“Anywhere in the world where there is white spot, there has been no cases where there’s been an ability to eradicate it,” Mr Furner said.

“The best thing we can do and my department, Biosecurity Queensland, does extremely well is containment.”

Mr Furner urged Queenslanders to buy local prawns and to never use prawns bought at a supermarket as bait.

The disease began with an outbreak in 2016.(Supplied: Biosecurity Qld)

While humans cannot be harmed by the disease, the infection is highly contagious and deadly for prawns, crabs and yabbies.

The exotic disease — common in Asia, North America and South America — was found in seven prawn farms in the Logan River area in Australia’s first known outbreak in 2016 and 2017.

It prompted the Queensland government to establish a restricted movement area in the Logan River and Moreton Bay region in a bid to stop the spread of the disease via uncooked prawns.

In 2017, the then Inspector-General of Biosecurity said imported, uncooked prawns — used as fishing bait in the Logan River — were the suspected source of the outbreak.

Something the industry ‘never wanted to hear’

Australian Prawn Farmers Association executive officer Kim Hooper said only three of the impacted Logan farms had returned to operation since the first outbreak ravaged the local industry in 2016.

Local farmers and the aquaculture industry have suffered the impacts of the outbreak.

The disease was last detected locally in April at two prawn farms on the Logan River, as well as in wild prawns and crabs caught in Moreton Bay.

Ms Hooper said the news was something the industry “never wanted to hear”.

“The rest of Australia is white spot free and we cannot let it out of the restricted area, which means that the current movement restrictions must remain,” she said.

Kim Hooper leans against a wall looking concerned.
Australian Prawn Farmers Association’s Kim Hooper says the spread of the disease is devastating for farmers.(ABC News: Tom Forbes)

Ms Hooper said the change in strategy would require an increased biosecurity effort and further costs to farmers to operate safely.

“It is really heartbreaking because we’ve been warning the federal government for years about the importation of products that have white spot and other diseases, as far back as 2009,” she said.

“[In] the first major incursion in Logan in 2016 and 2017, we saw animals eradicated which was heartbreaking and livelihoods destroyed.

“Hopefully in the next couple of years it will die out if it can, but otherwise we cannot let it out of that area.

“We need both the state government and federal government to support biosecurity and surveillance, especially the federal government with biosecurity at the border.

“We want Australians to continue to enjoy the iconic Aussie prawn.”

An image of a Queensland Map with Caloundra down to the Northern NSW area and west to Ipswich highlighted
Uncooked prawns, yabbies and marine worms are unable to be moved outside the restricted zone.(Supplied: Biosecurity Queensland)

The Federal Agriculture, Water and Environment Department said it was committed to the management of biosecurity risks associated with imported goods.

“Import conditions for uncooked prawns were suspended for six months following the white spot disease outbreak in Queensland in December 2016,” it said in a statement.

The department said conditions were further strengthened in July 2017 when trade resumed, and again in September 2018 and July 2020.

The department is undertaking a review of penalties and approved arrangements for biosecurity border control breaches, which it said was expected to be finalised by early 2022.

It said the department was constantly reviewing penalties to ensure they remain fit for purpose.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said his department would review its assessment of the biosecurity risks associated with imported, raw prawns.

“I have established an expert international panel to review our current import protocols, which will be provided to me by the end of April,” he said.

“I have also introduced legislation to increase penalties from $444,000 to $1.1million and the possibility of 10 years’ imprisonment.”