Introduction and context of inquiry
On 21 March 2017 the Senate referred the followed matters to the Rural
and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee (the committee) for
inquiry and report by 22 June 2017:
The biosecurity risks associated with the importation of
seafood and seafood products (including uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn
meat) into Australia, with specific reference to:
- management of the emergency response and associated
measures implemented to control the outbreak of White Spot Syndrome Virus;
- the effectiveness of biosecurity controls imposed on
the importation of seafood and seafood products, including, but not limited to,
uncooked prawns and prawn meat into Australia, including the import risk
analysis process concluded in 2009 that led to these conditions being
- the adequacy of Commonwealth resourcing of biosecurity
measures including Import Risk Assessments;
- the effectiveness of post-entry surveillance measures
and ‘end use’ import conditions for seafood products including, but not limited
to, uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat into Australia, since the import
conditions implemented in 2010 were put into place;
- the impact of the outbreak on Australia’s wild and farm
- the economic impact on Australian wholesalers and
- domestic and foreign trade implications for Australian
industries resulting from the suspension of importation of seafood and seafood
products, including, but not limited to, uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn
meat in Australia;
- matters to be satisfied in the management of
biosecurity risk before imports of seafood and seafood products, including, but
not limited to, uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat into Australia could
- any related matters.
On 22 June 2017, the committee tabled a substantive interim report. On
the same day, the Senate approved an extension of time for the tabling of a
final report, to 7 December 2017.
Conduct of inquiry
The inquiry was publicly advertised online, including on the committee's
website. The committee also directly invited submissions from a number of
organisations and individuals with interests and expertise in the seafood
The committee received 19 submissions. A list of individuals and
organisations that made public submissions to the inquiry, together with other
information authorised for publication, is at Appendix 1.
Prior to tabling the interim report, the committee held public hearings
in Canberra on 28 March 2017, and in Brisbane on 10 April 2017. The committee
has since held public hearings in the following locations:
Yatala, Queensland on 27 June 2017 (including a site visit to
prawn farms along the Logan River);
Canberra on 28 August 2017; and
Canberra on 11 September 2017.
Details of the hearings referred to above can be found in Appendix 2.
All public submissions and the Hansard transcript of evidence from the hearings
can be accessed through the committee's website.
The committee would like to thank the individuals and organisations who
contributed to this inquiry by making submissions, as well as appearing before
the committee to give evidence.
The committee particularly thanks those prawn farmers who allowed the
committee to tour their farms during a site visit to the Logan River area, on
27 June 2017.
Senator Chris Back of Western Australia was a member of the committee
until his retirement from the Senate on 22 June 2017. Senator Back provided invaluable
expertise to the committee during his time with this and many other rural and
regional affairs inquiries. The committee thanks Senator Back for his untiring contribution
to the work of this committee and wishes him well in his future endeavours.
The fisheries and aquaculture industries in Australia are of
considerable value. In 2014‑15, the production value of these industries
was $2.8 billion. However, seafood imports are required to 'fill the gap
between consumption and available domestic supply'. In 2014‑15, 227 612
tonnes of seafood was imported into Australia and accounted for approximately
67 per cent of Australia's total apparent seafood consumption.
Australia exports high-value seafood such as rock lobster and abalone, while
importing items such as canned fish and frozen prawns. These lesser value
products come from countries with lower labour costs, particularly Vietnam,
China and Thailand.
The majority of raw prawn imports to Australia are from Asia. In 2015‑16,
the major importing countries were China (6 720 tonnes), Malaysia
(2 307 tonnes), Vietnam (1 354 tonnes), Indonesia (604 tonnes) and
Thailand (197 tonnes). Between 2009‑10 and 2015‑16, 88 429
tonnes of uncooked prawns were imported into Australia.
The value of imported prawns into the Australian market in 2015-16 was $400.87
Australia produces 20 000 to 25 000 tonnes of prawns annually through
prawn aquaculture and wild catch. This volume is not adequate to meet the
existing domestic demand for raw, green prawns. Australia would need to double
its prawn production to meet this demand.
With such high volumes of seafood imports required to meet demand, it
remains imperative that Australia has effective biosecurity controls to ensure
that exotic diseases in any imported products do not enter Australia. As
evidenced by the recent white spot disease (WSD) outbreak, such diseases can
have disastrous impacts on local seafood industries.
While the WSD outbreak in 2016 was a central focus of the committee's
inquiry, the committee also heard evidence of the potentially devastating
impact of aquatic disease incursions on local seafood and aquaculture
industries more broadly.
The NSW Aquaculture Association Inc. noted that raw prawn meat was not
the only vector for WSD. The Association submitted that exotic freshwater
crayfish were being illegally traded within Australia, despite being known
carriers of white spot syndrome virus (WSSV). The Association raised a number
of concerns regarding the sale of illegal species in Australia, and with a lack
of enforcement, coordination and post-entry surveillance by government
The National Aquaculture Council (NAC) noted that global aquaculture had
expanded tenfold over the past 30 years. During this time more than 15 new
aquaculture diseases had been described, most of which are exotic to Australia.
Regarding biosecurity, the NAC argued that the highest risk products were fresh
and frozen seafood produced in overseas aquaculture facilities and imported
Mr Aaron Irving of the NAC argued that:
the ever‑increasing biosecurity risk profile posed by
imported seafood products is punctuated with severe ecological and economic
consequences on aquaculture, which is a rapidly growing industry section and
has already surpassed the $1 billion GDP per annum mark.
The Northern Territory Seafood Council (NTSC) noted its concerns
regarding the potential ecological impacts of pests and diseases entering the
Australian ecosystem, and the difficulties in taking action once a disease is
established in the environment. The NTSC summarised the impacts that
biosecurity breaches can have, stating that:
Biosecurity breaches impact more than farm production – they
can also jeopardise wild harvest fisheries, recreational fishing, Indigenous
people's cultural practices and food security, food service and tourism
sectors, the consumer's ability to source Australian seafood, as well as more
broad‑ranging and unpredictable negative impacts on the marine
environment, ecology and biodiversity.
The NTSC argued that with the Northern Territory being one of the
largest producers of saltwater barramundi in the country, it held serious
concerns about the importation of whole, fresh barramundi and associated waste
products into Australia, from 'high risk areas'. The NTSC called for the
importation of only cooked barramundi products.
Further to this, the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association (ABFA)
noted that there were serious disease risks to Australia's wild and farmed
barramundi stocks and aquatic ecosystems from the 'improperly regulated
importation of fish and fish product into Australia'. The ABFA also called for
the importation only of cooked barramundi. The ABFA argued that a biosecurity
will impact the availability of safe, disease free, high
quality Australian seafood for the domestic and international markets. This is
both a food security and a domestic and international trade issue due to
reduced product availability and loss of market access.
Logan River white spot outbreak
WSD is a crustacean disease of great concern to Australia, given it is
the most serious viral pathogen of cultured prawns. It is a highly virulent
disease that can spread quickly, causing 100 per cent mortality in farmed
prawns within two to seven days of infection.
It has been described as 'the disease of prawns that the seafood industry and
biosecurity agencies fear the most'.
As noted by the committee's interim report, WSSV, the virus that causes
WSD, is exotic to Australia. Prior to the 2016 outbreak, Australia was one of
the few countries in the world with a WSD-free prawn farming industry.
The evidence which confirmed that Australia was white spot free, prior
to 2016, came from multiple sources. It included the absence of clinical
disease on farms, passive surveillance on prawn farms, testing of wild caught
broodstock, and targeted surveillance of wild caught prawns.
Prior to the 2016 Logan River outbreak, there had been only one major
prior incident involving WSSV in Australia. In 2000, two Darwin aquaculture
research facilities accidently used imported WSSV‑infected prawns as
feed, resulting in prawns and mud crabs testing positive to WSSV. Following destruction
of all crustaceans at the facilities, subsequent testing in December 2000 found
no evidence of WSSV in wild crustaceans in the vicinity of the research
The committee's interim report provided some detail on the outbreak and
spread of WSD throughout the prawn farms of the Logan River, and into the Moreton
Bay area, following initial confirmed detection of the disease on 1 December
The white spot outbreak resulted in seven prawn farms along the Logan
River losing all their stock, including stock in growout ponds and hatcheries,
due to quarantine measures such as chlorination. These farms must remain fallow
until the second half of 2018.
On the detection of white spot in wild prawns in Moreton Bay in March
2017, a movement control order was implemented from Caloundra, Queensland to
the NSW border. The order prevented the movement of raw seafood products out of
the area. Some amendments to the control order have been made since it was
introduced in March, such as allowing the movement of low-risk species like
crabs, lobsters and bugs outside the area. However, as of 25 October 2017 yabbies,
marine worms and raw prawns remained restricted and could not be removed from
the movement control area.
The committee notes that the details of the white spot outbreak and its
spread along the Logan River, and into Moreton Bay, have been thoroughly
documented elsewhere. A number of reports have considered the cause of and
response to the outbreak, the adequacy of the responses, the economic impact of
the outbreak, and the efficacy of import conditions for raw prawn products. The
Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) in particular supported a
number of reports into the outbreak, some of which considered the initial
detection and spread of WSD in late 2016.
White spot disease outbreak response
AQUAVETPLAN and white spot
As highlighted in the committee's interim report, the Australian Aquatic
Veterinary Emergency Plan (AQUAVETPLAN) for WSD sets out the disease control
principles for use when white spot is suspected, or confirmed as detected, in a
prawn population. The AQUAVETPLAN provides three broad options for the control
of white spot:
Eradication – the highest control and could be the most cost‑effective
in the long‑term, aiming to return Australia to freedom from WSSV;
Containment, control and zoning – containing WSSV to areas where
it has become endemic, preventing further spread to uninfected areas; and
Control and mitigation – management practices to decrease the
incidence and severity of clinical disease outbreak (the lowest level control
measure and assumes the virus will remain endemic to Australia).
The AQUAVETPLAN also provides that the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) of
a jurisdiction where an outbreak occurs must develop an Emergency Animal
Disease response plan, which is submitted to the Aquatic Consultative Committee
on Emergency Animal Diseases (AqCCEAD) for review prior to implementation.
During the Logan River WSD outbreak, the AqCCEAD's role was to 'provide
technical advice to Biosecurity Queensland on response activities and
objectives, facilitate Australia's international reporting obligations and
As WSSV is listed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) as a
disease exotic to Australia, Australian authorities were required to report the
Logan River outbreak to the OIE and respond according to pre‑agreed
Chapter 9.8 of the Aquatic Animal Health Code, established by the OIE, specifies
a number of circumstances whereby a country can declare itself free from white
spot, known as 'proof of freedom'. Eradication efforts under the AQUAVETPLAN are
therefore directed at establishing proof of freedom from the disease in
For Australia to declare it has proof of freedom of white spot, in
accordance with the OIE, targeted surveillance and testing must be undertaken
for at least two years and must show no detection of WSSV. The two years
commence from the date of last detection.
Queensland Government response
The committee received evidence regarding the response by the Queensland
Government to the Logan River WSD outbreak. While the federal Minister for
Agriculture and Water Resources, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, provided financial
assistance to affected prawn farmers, the Department of Agriculture and Water
Resources (DAWR) emphasised that the responsibility to respond to pest and
disease outbreaks lies with the jurisdiction in which the outbreak occurs.
Biosecurity Queensland was first advised of a 'minor mortality event' on
the first infected Logan River prawn farm on 22 November 2016. It was assumed
that this 'was a further manifestation of virus disease issues which had been
affecting the industry', and not white spot.
Three days later, on 25 November 2016, officers from the Queensland
Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) conducted a site visit on the
first infected prawn farm, and confirmed that the farm was not discharging
water from the affected pond. On 29 November 2016, QDAF formally advised the
farm in writing to cease water discharge from the affected prawn pond. QDAF
confirmed with the committee that prior to this, there was no direction given
to farmers to stop water discharge, as there was no evidence at that point on
which to make such a decision.
Therefore, it is possible that water discharge from an infected pond into the Logan
River continued while diagnostic testing was being completed.
On 29 November 2016, the farmer at the first infected farm advised QDAF
of 'major losses [of prawns] of around 90 per cent in the pond and
that two adjacent ponds had also suffered high mortality'.
When test results on 30 November 2016 confirmed the presence of white
spot on the farm, the Queensland CVO notified the Australian CVO, as required
by cooperative arrangements. The Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL)
confirmed the presence of white spot on the farm, on 1 December 2016.
Emergency powers of inspectors under the Queensland
Biosecurity Act 2014 were activated on that day, 1 December, and on 3
December Queensland's draft response plan was submitted to the AqCCEAD. That
committee convened for a second time on 5 December 2016, and at that
meeting Queensland's response plan and surveillance plan were endorsed, subject
to minor amendments.
WSD was detected in wild prawns in the lower reaches of the Logan River
on 7 December 2016, resulting in the imposition of a movement control
order over the Logan River area, effective 8 December 2016.
Surveillance and eradication
Under the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014, QDAF initiated a
Biosecurity Control Program, which commenced on 21 January 2017 and which will
continue until 31 December 2017. This Program aims to minimise the
risk of WSSV further spreading and establishing, and to eradicate WSSV from the
QDAF advised that as of June 2017, it had progressed from the emergency
response, disposal and decontamination phases, into the next stage of
attempting to reopen the prawn farms. Dr Jim Thompson of QDAF noted that
financial assistance from the Commonwealth would support prawn farmers in remaining closed for another season.
At the end of August 2017, and three months after completing water
discharge from the infected farms, QDAF intended to commence a surveillance
program in Moreton Bay, in accordance with the AqCCEAD. The surveillance would
contribute to proof of freedom surveillance to demonstrate eradication of the
In line with the AQUAVETPLAN, reports on the WSD outbreak noted that
without eradication, efforts would be required to control and contain the
disease, with continued surveillance of WSD in wild prawn populations. To this
end, farmers would need to determine whether they continue their operations,
implementing biosecurity improvements that would help prevent further WSD
Dr Len Stephens argued that the actions taken by QDAF to
eradicate the disease were warranted. He argued that taking an eradication
approach greatly reduces the likelihood of future WSD outbreaks. Accordingly,
importation protocols needed to be reviewed against the best available current
science, in conjunction with a low tolerance for future risk. Dr Stephens
summarised the impact on the prawn industry, if eradication was not achieved:
If WSD was to take a hold in Australia as it has done in most
other countries, the cost of prawn farming would rise substantially due to
mortalities caused by the disease and the cost of implementing strong
biosecurity measures. In addition, there is the risk that the infection might
spread to other species that sustain commercial fisheries, such as crabs, rock
lobster, Moreton Bay Bugs and to wildlife. There would also certainly be
impacts on Australia’s international trade in prawns.
DAWR confirmed that during 2017, surveillance at eleven coastal sites in
Queensland, and nine in northern NSW, had resulted in 2837 wild caught prawns
being tested for WSSV. All prawns, from both Queensland and NSW, tested
negative for white spot.
On 22 June 2017, the committee tabled a substantive interim report as
part of its ongoing inquiry. The interim report provided an overview of WSD,
and the 2016 outbreak of WSD in the Logan River and Moreton Bay areas.
The committee considered the importation regime for prawns and prawn
products into Australia, including Australia's biosecurity obligations, the
import suspension determination implemented following the WSD outbreak, and a
number of exemptions made to the suspension determination.
The interim report detailed investigations undertaken by DAWR into importers
suspected of non‑compliance with Australia's biosecurity regulations.
These investigations revealed a considerable amount of WSD‑infected prawn
product available for retail sale, and led to the suspension of import permits
for a number of importers. The committee's interim report also considered the
biosecurity testing regime for WSSV, undertaken prior to the WSD outbreak and
as part of the enhanced testing regime after the outbreak.
At the time of the interim report, the committee held a number of
serious concerns about various aspects of the WSD outbreak, and stakeholder responses
to it. Key concerns included:
the timeliness of the response from DAWR, considering the
increased detection rate of WSD during 2016;
the timeliness and consistency of communication from DAWR to
stakeholders about the response, and the allocation of resources to the
the importation of infected prawn products due to inadequate
border biosecurity practices and intentional non‑compliance by importers;
the import suspension determination and the various amendments
made to that determination, including recommencement of the import of marinated
prawns and prawn product;
the inconsistencies in the WSSV enhanced testing regime and
responses to test results showing an increased prevalence of WSSV in Australia;
the overall efficacy of Australia's biosecurity regime in dealing
with infected seafood products and disease outbreaks.
Since the interim report, the committee has remained concerned with the
efficacy of communication between DAWR and industry. It is also concerned about
the recommencement of prawn imports (with the lapsing of the import suspension
in July 2017), and with the testing procedures for white spot in
Australian laboratories. These and other matters are considered in this report.
Initial import suspension
The committee's interim report detailed the conditions and permit
requirements of seafood importation. The interim report also detailed the
suspension that was implemented from 6 January 2017, on the import of raw
prawns and prawn products, and the various amendments made to the suspension
The decision to suspend prawn imports was the first use of
the import suspension powers in the Biosecurity Act 2015.
A number of submitters raised concerns about the import suspension,
particularly seafood importers whose products were directly impacted by the changed
For example, Global Seafood Distributors Australia (GSDA) had imported
prawns and had Australian exported and re‑imported prawns in transit when
the suspension took effect in January 2017. This resulted in large volumes of
GSDA's product being held in storage for testing. This caused a 'major cash
flow problem and subsequently caused a significant financial burden', and led
to dissatisfied customers seeking alternative products.
GSDA further advised that a significant amount of its imported product
was held for extended periods in biosecurity facilities, after the suspension
was implemented. GSDA argued that there was a lack of clear and timely
communication from DAWR about directions for further testing or action
involving the product.
Mr Alistair Dick of Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture expressed his concerns
with the import suspension. Mr Dick argued that 'the actual outbreak of white
spot on the Logan was used as a proxy for biosecurity', and that 'once a virus
is in Australia, you cannot use that as a decision‑making tool' or as a
reason to suspend trade.
Enhanced import conditions
The import suspension lapsed on 6 July 2017. As of 7 July 2017, enhanced
import conditions were applied to 'allow for safe trade in prawns and prawn
products, to meet Australia's appropriate level of protection (ALOP)'. The
enhanced conditions and testing requirements included:
consolidating uncooked prawns, marinated prawns and Australian
prawns processed overseas (excluding those processed in an Australian
government approved supply chain) into one product class ('uncooked prawns')
for biosecurity purposes;
certification from exporting countries that the prawns have been
found free from WSSV and yellowhead virus (YHV), based on sampling and testing
methods recognised by the OIE;
pre‑export sampling and testing after processing, and prior
to export to Australia; and
100 per cent seals intact inspection on arrival in Australia
and testing for WSSV and YHV at an Australian screening laboratory, prior to
release from biosecurity control.
Additionally, DAWR determined that some import conditions for marinated
and overseas processed prawns could be removed, 'because the department
considers that the combination of pre‑export and on‑arrival testing
adequately addresses the biosecurity risks'. The removed conditions included:
overseas competent authorities no longer needing to certify that
prawns had been adequately marinated;
biosecurity officers no longer checking marination as part of on‑arrival
for those prawns processed in a non‑Australian government
approved supply chain, the competent authority would no longer be required to
certify that the prawns had been processed in a premises it has approved; and
breaded, battered and crumbed prawns no longer being subject to
pre‑export or on‑arrival testing given their lower biosecurity risk
(100 per cent seals intact inspection would remain).
DAWR advised it would retain these import conditions, pending the
outcomes of a review into the importation of prawns and prawn products,
announced on 16 May 2017. However, if the biosecurity risks changed,
the import conditions would be amended to ensure the ALOP was met.
As of 11 September 2017, a number of competent authorities had provided
written confirmation to DAWR that they could meet the enhanced import
conditions for prawns, and therefore trade could be resumed. Countries
providing confirmation were Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, China, Denmark,
India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
DAWR had also written to the competent authorities in Argentina, Canada,
France, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines,
Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States to ascertain whether
these countries could meet the enhanced import conditions for prawns. As of 11 September 2017, these countries had not
provided written confirmation to DAWR of meeting the conditions.
DAWR confirmed to the committee that, in the event it was concerned
about certifications from exporting countries, it would 'engage in discussions
with the competent authority'. DAWR further stated that:
If there was an ongoing pattern of behaviour and we could not
have confidence in the certification that a country provided us with then we
have the option to prevent them from exporting to us anymore and not accepting
As of 22 August 2017, 10 consignments had been imported under the
enhanced import conditions. Seven of these consignments tested negative for
WSSV and YHV and were released from biosecurity control, with
the testing results pending for the remaining three consignments.
Ceasing the suspension – industry
Despite the enhanced import conditions that were put in place from 7 July 2017,
the lapse of the import suspension raised concerns amongst some industry
QDAF noted that the Queensland Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries
had raised concerns regarding the cessation of the suspension, as ending the
suspension 'did not provide sufficient confidence for an industry that was
already having to make difficult decisions about the risks of continuing on'.
The Australian Prawn Farmers Association (APFA) raised its concerns,
If DAWR are serious about managing risks associated with the
importation of raw prawns they would keep the ban in place until a full and new
IRA was performed with consideration given to a range of, false assumptions in
the current IRA and altered risk factors in relation to emerging diseases, bait
usage and other food safety issues that have now come to light.
Mr Ian Rossmann of GI Rural prawn farm argued that recommencing the
importation of raw imported prawn products was 'purely dangerous', and reduced
industry confidence that a white spot outbreak would not occur again.
A number of submitters told the committee that lifting the import suspension
was premature, while highlighting the inconsistency of allowing imports at a
time when local product remained tightly controlled.
Ms Serena Zipf of the Rocky Point Prawn Farm highlighted reports that
indicated that white spot eradication was highly unlikely, and yet the
importation of raw prawns was able to recommence. Ms Zipf also questioned the
efficacy of certification from overseas authorities that imported products were
disease‑free, stating that this 'screams of outsourcing biosecurity responsibilities'.
She noted that the industry did not have confidence that this measure would
afford any extra protection.
Mr Eric Perez of the Queensland Seafood Industry Association (QSIA)
stated that the organisation had 'absolutely no confidence in the new testing
programs' put in place following the end of the import suspension. Mr Perez
questioned why overseas product was entering Australia, while the WSD source
remained unknown and locally sourced products remained under movement control
Mr Perez also questioned what the scientific basis may have been for re‑commencing
imports, given investigations were continuing into 'what went wrong at the
However, DAWR advised the committee that testing of product in the
exporting countries for white spot was a new step in the process. It was argued
that this additional testing provided greater assurances that the product being
imported was free from WSSV.
This chapter provided an overview of the committee's substantive interim
report. It has also provided a summary of the WSD outbreak and the Queensland
Government response to it. This chapter also examined the enhanced import
conditions implemented from 7 July 2017, after the lapsing of the initial
January 2017 import suspension.
Chapter Two examines the impact of the white spot incursion on Australian
prawn farmers, the commercial seafood sector and wild catch industries. It also
looks at the impact of the disease outbreak on seafood importers and the retail
industry. This chapter examines the financial assistance provided to affected
industries at both a state and federal level, and the ongoing development of an
aquatic Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement (EADRA).
Chapter Three examines evidence regarding the five potential disease
pathways being considered by DAWR, including the use of imported raw prawns intended
for human consumption as bait. It examines claims of biosecurity failures,
particularly at the border, and considers developments with genetic testing on
the virus to determine its origin.
In Chapter Four, evidence is considered regarding communication between
federal and state jurisdictions, particularly in relation to DAWR's Operation
Cattai and the elevated presence of white spot in the retail sector. The
chapter presents evidence from industry and stakeholders regarding concerns
with Operation Cattai, including how the operation impacted DAWR communication
Chapter Five provides background information on the development of the
2009 Generic Import Risk Analysis Report for Prawns and Prawn Products
(IRA), including the Queensland Government response to the draft IRA. The
chapter considers the overall efficacy of the IRA, and provides evidence
received by the committee calling for its urgent revision.
The final chapter outlines progress that has been made since the
outbreak. The chapter also presents the committee's overall views and
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