Criminal charges are likely to be laid against at least one prawn importer suspected of deliberately flouting biosecurity controls as authorities work to contain a white spot disease outbreak.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce on Friday announced the indefinite suspension of green, or raw, prawn imports after white spot disease was detected in prawns sold for human consumption.
He says criminal charges are being pursued against one importer while another four are being investigated.
Under Australia’s quarantine regulations, a sample from all consignments of imported green prawns must be sent for testing to ensure they are free of white spot.
But AAP understands that at least one importer now in the sights of quarantine authorities was deliberately selecting only healthy prawns from consignments known to be infected with white spot and sending those to be tested.
White spot disease has hit five farms near the Logan River in Queensland’s southeast, and has been detected in wild prawns in the river itself.
One possible cause of the outbreak was imported green prawns sold for human consumption being used as bait.
The disease poses no risk to human health but is deadly to prawns and could devastate Australia’s $360m prawn industry.
“We are doing everything in our power to make sure we deal with this and try and nip this in the bud,” Mr Joyce said in announcing the import suspension.
“Australia’s $358 million prawn industry must be protected and not put at risk by the careless and selfish acts of a few.”
Devastated prawn farmers say the government should have acted years ago to stop the importation of raw prawns they suspect brought the exotic virus to Australia.
“We’ve been pushing for this for many, many years,” Australian Prawn Farmers Association chief executive Helen Jenkins told AAP.
“Why import a product that’s likely to cripple our industry.”
She said the impact of the white spot outbreak had already been devastating, and it had been very difficult to watch affected farmers lose a lifetime of work.
“Watching farms die and the industry crumble over the last month has been really, really hard,” she said.
A 2009 risk assessment found that without proper safeguards, there was a high likelihood that diseases carried by imported raw prawns could spread to Australian populations.
But instead of a ban, as some had wanted, Biosecurity Australia decided to beef up quarantine rules to mitigate the risk.
A ban was also imposed on imported uncooked prawns being used for bait, because infected raw prawns can spread white spot to animals that eat them, even if they have been frozen first.
Prawns worth tens of millions of dollars, which were being raised in ponds at the infected farms, have had to be destroyed since white spot was confirmed last month.
The import suspension does not affect cooked prawns because the cooking process destroys white spot.