Adjournment Debate - White Spot Disease

December 04, 2018

As we approach the Christmas period, many of us will put in our orders for fresh prawns to add to the Christmas table. The great Australian tradition of throwing a prawn or two on the barbie will be well and truly underway this summer. If your household's anything like mine, you have to peel the ones you intend to eat yourself; you shouldn't leave it to someone else. But that's a story for another day. This is a timely reminder for all of us to order our Australian prawns, not only to support local business but to protect our waterways and the Australian seafood industry.

In Australia, frozen imported prawn meat carries a label that says 'not to be used for bait', and there's a very important reason for that. This is because these prawns are produced in an environment where the white spot virus exists. White spot is highly contagious and lethal to crustaceans. Overseas, it has reduced prawn farm activity by up to 40 per cent. In its worst cases, it's wiped out entire populations of prawns in farms in days. The virus isn't dangerous to humans, and it's killed when the prawn is cooked, but the Aussie tradition of putting a green prawn on a hook and throwing a line in puts our waterways and our industry at great risk.

Australia has been hooked before. In 2017, a high number of diseased prawns entered and were sold in Australia. The white spot virus was then detected in Moreton Bay, contributing to the biggest biosecurity breach in recent decades. The Australian Prawn Farmers Association accused the federal department of agriculture of dropping the ball following the revelations. A study at the time revealed an incredible 71 per cent of imported green prawns carried the white spot virus. These imported prawns infected Australian wild prawns and prawn farms, so the minister for agriculture banned them. Then the affected Australian wild prawning areas and prawn farms were slapped with a ban as well. Meanwhile, the ban on the very source of the white spot, the imported prawns, was lifted, but the ban on our Australian prawns remained. In what universe does that make any sense?

In the absence of a reliable government policy, the Australian prawn industry decided to act. Across a four-year period, the Seafood Cooperative Research Centre facilitated the voluntary collection of marketing contributions for the Australian Prawn Farmers Association and the Australian Council of Prawn Fisheries. It funnelled the funds into its very successful Love Australian Prawns campaign, which not only encouraged consumers to support our domestic fishers—or prawners, I should say; I'll be corrected by prawners in my electorate on that one—but also raised awareness of the scourge of white spot.

We know there is great demand for uncooked prawns in restaurants and in food service. According to the Australian Wild Prawns website, of the 30,000 tonnes of prawns imported each year to the end of 2016, 10,000 tonnes were uncooked, 7,000 tonnes were marinated and 13,000 tonnes were cooked, crumbed or battered—whatever way you like them. But there is an enormous risk associated with allowing green prawns into our waterways or inadequately disposing of the shells and heads or any part of their waste.

I raise the issue because it is one that affects my community, and it's timely to just put out this warning and reminder to people. My electorate of Paterson is home to native fishing and aquaculture industries, and I've heard from many of my constituents about this topic. But I want to talk about the former member for Paterson, the very wise Bob Horne, who was also my science teacher at school. He wrote to me just recently about this, and he said: 'Meryl, white spot has the potential still to wipe out our entire prawn industry. We must keep Australia clean and green'. Well said, Bob. Good on you—as always, some words of wisdom from a former member for Paterson. Keep our waterways safe and our seafood industry thriving this Christmas. Buy Aussie prawns before you buy anything else, but, if you do decide to buy imported prawns, please don't use them as bait. And don't forget: you have to peel what you intend to eat. Happy Christmas.