Dead waters

A virus leaves South Australia's coasts strewn with dead fish

Published: Tuesday 15 December 1998

A VIRUS that has left more than 2,500 km of South Australia's coast littered with millions of rotting pilchard fish could reach Victorian waters in just over a week.

The herpes-related virus that causes lesions on the pilchards' gills is moving steadily towards Victoria. It is a repetition of a similar outbreak that hit pilchards; three years ago. The fish, seen along South Australian beaches with their mouths in a characteristic death gape, are being wiped out in huge numbers.

The outbreak began in the Spencer Gulf and has spread west past Ceduna. It is also travelling east and recently passed the mouth of the Murray river. The ultimate scale of the deaths and the cost to the fishing industry are impossible to estimate.

At least 2,000 tonnes of fish were so far likely to have been lost. The disease is specific to pilchards and there is no sign of its being passed on to other animals, but authorities warn against eating the dead fish or using them for bait. Pilchard fishing in South Australia was banned early in October this year and commercial fishermen may have to wait until November before it is lifted. Even then, quotas are likely to be cut.

However, the ban should prevent the accidental spreading of the disease beyond local waters, where it is spreading at an alarming rate of more than 30 km every day.

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