Operation Cattai and stakeholder communication
As highlighted in the committee's interim report, industry stakeholders
raised concerns about the communication from DAWR to them, during and after the
WSD outbreak. In particular, stakeholders questioned the timeliness and
transparency of the communications from DAWR.
Further concerns were raised about communication between the
Commonwealth and Queensland governments, particularly with regards to Operation
Cattai and the elevated presence of WSSV in the retail sector throughout 2016.
This chapter presents the views of the Queensland Government about communication
from the Commonwealth. It also provides an update on the outcomes of Operation
Cattai, and the reaction of industry stakeholders to the operation. The chapter
also presents the views of stakeholders regarding overall failures in the
biosecurity system and screening processes at the Australian border.
Federal and state communication
In January 2017, a media release by the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP noted that responsibility
for containing the WSD outbreak lay with the Queensland Government. The
Commonwealth offered to work with Queensland, and provided experts to assist
the Queensland response, while also considering applications for financial assistance.
In February 2017, the Commonwealth and the Queensland Government
'reaffirmed their shared commitment to support prawn farmers impacted by white
spot virus and pledged to continue to work together to eradicate the disease'.
A commitment was also made to reach agreement with the industry on financial
However, in late April 2017, the Hon Bill Byrne, Queensland Minister for
Agriculture and Fisheries, argued that the liability for responding to the
outbreak and the on-going costs associated with WSD 'lies squarely at the feet
of Barnaby Joyce and the Commonwealth'. Minister Byrne put forward the
Queensland Government position that the Commonwealth 'must accept sole
responsibility' for the outbreak, as DAWR had 'deliberately withheld information
that might have prevented the outbreak'.
Minister Byrne further argued against a cost‑sharing arrangement
with the Commonwealth, stating that 'the industry has rejected cost sharing on
the grounds prawn farmers did nothing wrong and I fully support their
The Queensland Government upheld the view that it had borne the costs of
failures in border biosecurity by the Commonwealth. During the Queensland
Estimates process in July 2017, Minister Byrne said that:
It is clear that the Commonwealth failed in its
responsibilities and compounded this failure by failing to inform the
Queensland government or industry that they had concerns about white spot
coming in on imported green prawns. The Commonwealth should acknowledge that it
did not live up to the expectation that intelligence regarding biosecurity
threats are shared with all relevant stakeholders and, in this particular case,
[Queensland] as a stakeholder jurisdiction.
On 27 June 2017, prior to the lapsing of the import suspension, Minister
Byrne wrote to Minister Joyce, seeking assurances that 'prawns infected with
WSSV will be detected and not present any further risk to Queensland'. Minister
Byrne also sought assurance that:
the standards and protocols implemented for prawns processed overseas
will ensure product is not infected with WSSV
the frequency of testing ensures confidence that infected prawns will be
identified and prohibited from entry
border inspection processes and rates ensure processed prawns meet all
DAWR will immediately share information of any border biosecurity
Operation Cattai and heightened disease risk
As detailed in the committee's interim report, Operation Cattai was
conducted by DAWR throughout 2016, to investigate non‑compliant seafood
importers and undertake targeted compliance inspections.
Throughout the inquiry, the committee heard concerns from various
stakeholders about a lack of communication from DAWR regarding the operation
and its potential impact on them. Concerns were also raised that the heightened
risk of a disease outbreak was not communicated to farmers, thus precluding
them from taking preventative actions that could have impeded a white spot
Findings of Operation Cattai
In mid‑2016, Operation Cattai detected elevated levels of WSSV in
retail outlets in a number of locations, together with serious biosecurity
breaches at the border regarding raw prawns and prawn products. The operation
imported raw prawns available for retail sale infected with white
spot, between Melbourne and Brisbane;
deliberate evasion of biosecurity and quarantine controls by some
use of imported raw prawns intended for human consumption as bait
by recreational fishers; and
biosecurity officers at the border not following proper work
procedures in relation to inspecting and testing imported raw prawns and prawn
Operation Cattai led to the suspension of import permits and approved
arrangements for a number of seafood importers, and to a brief of evidence
being submitted to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP).
Developments from Operation Cattai
DAWR advised that as of September 2017, nine importing entities had
their approved arrangements with the department, and their import permits,
revoked or suspended. Further, DAWR had focussed its investigations on five
entities, with two investigations remaining active. The majority of activities
being investigated by DAWR occurred on Australia's eastern seaboard.
At that time, DAWR was preparing a new brief of evidence for the CDPP
for evaluation in the coming months. With regards to the matter already referred
to the CDPP, DAWR advised in September 2017 that:
that matter was before the court in late August. It's been
adjourned to late November. That involves one particular trading entity and two
directors from that entity in relation to a number of charges concerning taking
steps deliberately to attempt to subvert or make our [inspection and testing]
role more difficult.
DAWR maintained the position that the Logan River outbreak and Operation
Cattai were not necessarily related. It was stressed to the committee that
while there was a white spot outbreak in the Logan River farms, any
non-compliance by seafood importers was a separate issue. Without a proven link
between the two, it could not be said that the Logan River outbreak was related
to non‑compliant importer behaviour.
However, many witnesses to the inquiry held the opposing view.
Communication with other jurisdictions
DAWR advised the committee that it determined to not share information
about the findings of Operation Cattai with jurisdictional counterparts, as
this may have led to changes in importer behaviour, making it more difficult to
detect and deal with infected or other risk products.
Despite this, a number of stakeholders raised concerns that DAWR did not
advise other jurisdictions about the elevated presence of white spot in
Australia, in order for jurisdictions to undertake necessary precautionary
actions. Additionally, there have been criticisms that DAWR did not act with
appropriate urgency given the elevated detection rate of WSSV in Australia.
Minister Byrne maintained that the matter of most concern to the
Queensland Government was that the Commonwealth knew of imported product with WSSV
and failed to inform Queensland biosecurity officers. Minister Byrne stated
I was appalled to find the Department of Agriculture and
Water Resources was in possession of enough evidence more than 12 months ago to
approve a compliance program on the importation of imported green prawns,
Operation Cattai, but not concerned enough to let state authorities know what
might be happening. Perhaps the litany of cover‑ups and secrecy continued
unabated when in June 2016 positive samples of white spot were found in retail
prawns...At no point was the Queensland government told of these concerns, even
though we raised concerns of this nature back more than a decade ago.
Dr Jim Thompson, Chief Biosecurity Officer of QDAF, advised that QDAF
first heard of concerns about white spot‑infected prawns at the border on
16 December 2016. This was after the positive detection of white spot
in the Logan River. QDAF was more formally advised on 4 January 2017, prior to Commonwealth
announcements on the outcomes of Operation Cattai.
Dr Elizabeth Woods, the Director‑General of QDAF, confirmed to the
committee that prior to these dates, the department did not have any advice
regarding outcomes of investigations happening at a federal level.
In response, DAWR argued that while some information about ongoing
biosecurity risks had been shared with other jurisdictions, specific details
were not provided. DAWR stated that:
Specific information concerning the identities or behaviours
of non‑compliant importers has not been shared. The department
understands this information is of no value to state and territories in helping
them to manage risk according to their jurisdictional obligations.
Witnesses before the committee did not dispute this proposition. What
they did dispute, however, was that the increased risk due to the heightened
presence of WSSV was not communicated to them at all.
In his February 2017 report for the FRDC, Dr Diggles noted that
'preparedness and heightened surveillance for exotic diseases could have been
facilitated if federal authorities had communicated the increased risk [of WSD]
to state authorities'.
Yet, DAWR advised that the focus of its investigations was the
prevention of prawns entering the country that did not comply with import
requirements. DAWR stated that:
The department was unaware of what additional risk management
measures the prawn farmers could or would have put in place if they had been
informed that WSDV [sic] positive prawns had entered the country when they were
already of the view that this was a risk.
However, DAWR also acknowledged that it might inform its counterparts in
a more timely fashion in a similar circumstance in the future:
Faced with the same circumstances in future the department
would advise state counterparts on a confidential basis, noting that at the
time...the department had the view that the risks were low.
Reaction from industry and stakeholders
Mr Nick Moore of Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture argued that had the
Queensland Government been advised of Operation Cattai and the presence of raw
infected prawns for sale in the Logan River area, 'alarm bells would have rung
that first day' when the first infected farm contacted Biosecurity Queensland. Mr
Moore advised that farmers could have responded differently if they were aware
that white spot was present in the area. Mr Moore continued that:
I am 100 per cent convinced
that, had the state government been aware of Cattai, been aware of the
involvement, then we would possibly not even be sitting here today...I think the
state government did what they could. I think they did what they could with the
powers that they had, the experience that they had and the resources that they
had, which were very limited. They have to be given everything they need. But,
if the farmers had known that white spot was in the area for months before we
stocked, we probably would not be sitting here.
Mr Moore also noted the view of the
industry that the infected farms were not to blame for the outbreak,
particularly given the state government was unaware of the prevalence of white
spot. Mr Moore asserted that:
These guys [the farmers] did
everything right. There is not one farm on the Logan or one farmer that I know
of in Australia that blames them at all—not one bit. I can guarantee that. They
did everything they could. They could have done more had they known.
The NSIA argued that the failure of DAWR to communicate with state
counterparts and with industry about Operation Cattai for ten months, including
the increased disease risk at a retail level, could have increased the
likelihood of incursion of WSSV and other prawn diseases. Had prawn farmers received
earlier, timely communication about the increased prevalence of WSSV in the
retail chain, on‑farm biosecurity measures could have been increased to
reduce the risk of a disease outbreak. Likewise, jurisdictional biosecurity
officers would have been more aware of the risks of an exotic disease incursion
and therefore able to undertake more appropriate diagnostic testing.
The ACPF submitted that while it appreciated the sensitivities involved
in compliance activities, it was possible that had more information been made
available at the appropriate time, 'the disease pathways may have been closed
The NAC asserted that the decision of DAWR to not inform industry or
other jurisdictions about Operation Cattai had 'significantly damaged trust on
many levels within the biosecurity chain'. It had also raised serious questions
for those in the industry regarding DAWR's ability to manage risks at the
border. The NAC indicated that:
Similarly, the apparent willingness of many prawn importers
to flout biosecurity controls and the culture in DAWR that allowed it to happen
has reduced the confidence in Australia's import biosecurity framework for
Moving forward, the APFA argued that the prosecution of some importers
and new import controls would not completely solve the problems. The APFA
called for the continued surveillance of prawns in retail outlets, and for an
ongoing awareness of the possibility of corruption when monitoring prawn import
Failures in biosecurity practices
Throughout the inquiry, a number of witnesses noted the importance of
biosecurity border testing, and raised concerns over the apparent failure of
the biosecurity screening practices of DAWR at the border.
In July 2017, Minister Byrne argued that the most likely cause of the
WSD incursion appeared to be failures of border security practices, allowing
infected prawn products into the country. Minister Byrne went on to state that:
There must be a rethink of how Australia deals with
biosecurity threats, rather than an expectation that states and producers can
continue to wear the costs of systemic border failures. The first step is that
the Commonwealth must be open and honest with state governments and industry
over biosecurity threats and what intelligence the Commonwealth has, which must
QSIA asserted that the commercial wild catch sector deserved
compensation from the Commonwealth for DAWR's 'gross mismanagement' of
biosecurity risks. QSIA further maintained that the WSSV incursion into
a fundamental failure of the Australian biosecurity system
producing catastrophic impacts from prawn mortality on Logan River prawn farms
and business disruption to wild‑catch seafood producers from subsequent disease‑containment
The NSIA submitted that it had:
serious concerns regarding fundamental flaws in the risk
analysis, border quarantine and testing processes that have caused a
catastrophic biosecurity failure which has placed us in this situation.
The NSIA noted the importance of disease testing at the border,
particularly with reference to the whole seafood supply chain. Mr Johnathon
Davey of the NSIA argued that while imported product enters wholesale,
supermarket and retail sectors, these sectors have no testing requirements or
disease identification processes, as this only occurred at the border. Thus,
testing at the border was 'the one point we have to stamp [disease] out'.
Biosecurity staff training and procedure
As noted in the committee's interim report, DAWR had examined the
operations of biosecurity officers at the border. It was noted that in some
instances, staff were not following proper operational procedures and were not
randomly selecting prawn products for WSSV testing.
In a submission to the inquiry, Dr Monckton argued that inadequately
trained and informed front line biosecurity staff would lead to the failure of
the whole testing and sampling biosecurity regime. Dr Monckton stated that high
staff turnover within DAWR reduced knowledge of proper processes within the
department, resulting in inadequate or improper product sampling. Further, Dr
Monckton expressed concern that there was a lack of understanding of the
importance of the IRA, and its scientific meaning.
DAWR advised in a supplementary submission in August that it had sought
to address issues with biosecurity staff training and inspection procedures. Updated
instructional material had been implemented and:
All relevant staff have been formally trained on these arrangements
and there is an ongoing verification process underway to ensure that these are
being consistently applied at a national level...
Given the significant additional workload associated with the
enhanced inspection arrangements for prawns, the department sought and gained
approval for 105 additional staff. Of these 74 staff are associated with
frontline inspection and assessment activities and the remainder are associated
with compliance, enforcement, policy and supporting roles.
Further, while DAWR had not identified any fraudulent or corrupt
behaviour by staff with regards to import inspections and testing, it
'continued to work with ACLEI, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement
Integrity, to investigate any allegations of fraudulent or corrupt behaviour
and to review the actions of our staff'.
SIAA advised the committee that, in prior years, DAWR had sought
assistance from industry associations to help biosecurity policy and compliance
staff better understand importer issues and the 'potential for cheating'. SIAA
argued that such engagement would help address issues with inexperienced staff
and assist biosecurity officers to better identify and address irregularities
as they occur.
As part of its biosecurity practices, DAWR can enter 'approved
arrangements' with operators, such as importers. These arrangements allow
operators to assess goods, using their own premises, facilities, equipment and
personnel, in accordance with DAWR requirements and with 'occasional compliance
monitoring or auditing' by DAWR.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) noted its ongoing concerns
with approved arrangements. The CPSU argued that self-regulation by industry
creates unacceptable levels of risk, undermines the effectiveness of biosecurity
controls and has adverse impacts on quarantine outcomes. The CPSU further
argued that approved arrangements shift biosecurity functions onto industry
participants, and away from biosecurity officers.
Enhanced diagnostic testing regime
In its interim report, the committee examined the process of testing for
WSSV in Australian laboratories, and the enhanced testing regime that was
implemented after the 2016 outbreak of WSD.
Following the outbreak, the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) developed
enhanced WSSV testing processes, and was used by DAWR as the primary white spot
testing laboratory. In March 2017, DAWR confirmed that the enhanced testing
used by AAHL was returning higher levels of positive WSSV results after the
outbreak, and that results in prior years could have been higher had enhanced
testing then been in place.
Throughout the inquiry, the committee heard evidence that dissimilar
approaches taken by laboratories in testing for WSSV resulted in different
standards for positive and negative results. This also raised the possibility
of false positives and negatives. The committee raised its concerns with DAWR
about inconsistencies in the enhanced testing regime, and the fact that AAHL
processes were unable to be verified by other testing facilities.
AAHL testing procedure
As the inquiry continued, the committee was advised that the AAHL white
spot testing process was based on international standards developed by the OIE.
The method prescribed by the OIE would be considered the 'standard test for
white spot', with AAHL developing 'improvements' to the testing technology.
In particular, the committee heard that AAHL was using 45 cycles in its
real‑time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for white spot, whereas
the standard developed by the OIE called for 40 cycles. It was suggested that
while still adhering to OIE standards, these different cycles led to
laboratories applying different cut-off values to determine negative results
DAWR has since advised the committee that the confirmatory testing
conducted by AAHL did 'help identify that there were some inconsistencies in
testing across laboratories', with some prawns testing negative for WSSV at
screening laboratories, then testing positive at AAHL under the enhanced
testing conditions. Accordingly, DAWR identified that a 'more prescriptive and
standardised procedure' was required to better manage biosecurity risks.
A workshop was held on 17 May 2017 with AAHL and the three approved
screening laboratories – AgriGen, Advanced Analytics Australia, and the
Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute. At the workshop:
it was agreed a more standardised testing protocol should be
developed and adopted by all laboratories, including the use of a consistent
cut-off value for determining positive or negative results across all
laboratories. The department agreed to lead the development of a standardised
testing procedure for WSSV.
The standardised testing procedure developed by DAWR for WSSV aimed to
reduce inconsistencies and ensure more robust procedures were in place. The
testing procedure has since been adopted by all approved laboratories testing
prawn imports, with laboratories then assessed by the National Association of
Testing Authorities (NATA). Further, DAWR has 'provided comments to the OIE,
recommending the WSSV section in the OIE manual of diagnostic tests be
DAWR did acknowledge that the standardised procedure would use the 45
PCR cycles, but Australia could not insist that other countries adopt the same
approach. While DAWR was informing other countries of its testing approach, it
noted that the PCR cycles were just one part of the testing process. DAWR explained
We use the OIE as a guideline, but then we also work with
other countries considerably through exchange of information and expertise.
Part of our plan has been to make sure that we have officers going over there
on familiarisation visits to work with the other countries. We've had
teleconferences with the other countries, and that helps with the understanding
to make sure we have fewer of these problems. We have our technical experts
speaking to their technical experts.
DAWR advised the committee that it was informing trading partners and
importers of the new standardised testing requirements, while making all
information available online. Further, work was underway with overseas trading
partners 'so that they fully understand our test, what we do and how we do it
so that they can apply the same regime'.
DAWR also acknowledged that the pre-export testing regime was a new
requirement, as previously there had been no requirement for product to be
tested prior to export to Australia. Mr Tim Chapman of DAWR argued that while
the combination of pre-export and on arrival testing 'does raise the bar', it
also 'provides a level of certainty'.
In the event that an exporting country certifies, in good faith, that
prawns are free from white spot, and then test positive for white spot in
Australia, DAWR will immediately contact the exporting country. DAWR advised
that it would exchange technical information with the exporting country and
attempt to identify the issues that led to the discrepancy.
DAWR also advised that it was providing the testing procedure to
relevant trading partners, and developing a short training program in testing
techniques. The training focuses on the standardised practices and will be
'offered to laboratory technicians responsible for WSSV testing in major prawn
Dr Patrick Hone of the FRDC supported such measures. Dr Hone stressed
One of the best things that we could do with science is work
with things like ACIAR, Australian Centre for International Agricultural
Research, which works through Foreign Affairs and Trade, to push out our
science capability into our neighbouring countries. If we can up the capability
of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia—all of those
countries—that's in Australia's interest.
The committee heard directly from importers who highlighted the consequences
for them of conflicting testing results, which they saw as unreliable,
confusing and which undermined their confidence, and the confidence of the
exporting country, in Australia's disease testing regime.
One particular instance involved the seafood importer Red Chamber
Company. The company had imported Argentinian raw prawns to Australia, via Thailand
for processing. While the results from the AgriGen laboratory indicated that
the imported prawns were negative for white spot, subsequent testing at AAHL
produced both a negative and positive result for WSSV. As a result, Red Chamber
had a significant volume of product held in biosecurity storage and was
prevented from selling the product in Australia.
The committee expressed its concern to DAWR that the enhanced testing
regime, the 45 PCR cycles, and the differences between testing laboratories had
created considerable frustration amongst importers, and had resulted in
substantial delays in releasing product from biosecurity control.
Some submitters raised concerns with the overall approach to testing.
For example, the SIAA noted that it was impossible to test every prawn arriving
in Australia for disease. Accordingly, testing would only be 'as good as the
sampling regime allows it to be', and some degree of risk would remain, regardless
of testing and sampling processes.
SIAA considered that if DAWR engaged in 'multilateral or bilateral
agreements on disease testing methods and standards to allow recognition of
supplier nation PCR testing', this would effectively screen imports before
their arrival in Australia. This was considered 'an infinitely safer and more
commercially acceptable approach'. SIAA strongly argued for pre-export testing
to help ensure that imported product met with Australia's ALOP .
As noted, DAWR has since implemented pre‑export testing as part of
the enhanced import conditions, and engaged with trading partners to provide
training in PCR testing methods. This new process will go some way to
addressing the concerns raised by the SIAA.
The APFA recommended the dismantling of import controls that were based
on disease testing. The APFA stated that the 'predictive value of the testing
standards set by the import risk assessment for imported prawns is too low to
prevent an influx of diseased prawns'. Further, testing would not detect new
and emerging diseases. Given the considerable cost and time involved in disease
testing, the APFA argued that 'dismantling this system would achieve
significant savings for government and industry throughout the supply chain'.
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