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Prawn farmers demand quarantine probe

AAP logoAAP 9/01/2017 Tracey Ferrier

Australian prawn farmers are demanding a full inquiry into the arrival of a devastating new virus, and any quarantine failings or corrupt activity that let it in the door.

The federal government has suspended imports of raw, or green prawns, after white spot disease was found at five farms near the Logan River in southeast Queensland, and in wild prawns in the river itself.

Efforts to kill prawns at the last of the five infected farms are continuing, as authorities keep up monitoring tests, including in the Logan River and nearby waterways.

Farmers strongly suspect the virus hitched a ride to Australia with consignments imported from infection zones overseas, but the source of the outbreak is yet to be proven.

The government, however, last week revealed it is pursuing criminal charges against at least one importer alleged to have deliberately flouted testing regimes designed to keep Australia white spot-free.

Four other importers are also under investigation.

It's expected authorities will allege that at least one importer hand-picked only healthy prawns for independent testing, from consignments otherwise known to have white spot, contrary to quarantine requirements for random samples.

The Australian Prawn Farmers Association says it's clear there's been a spectacular quarantine failure, even in the unlikely event that another source is found to have caused the Logan River outbreak.

"There must be a full government inquiry, including into AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) controls," the association's executive officer Helen Jenkins told AAP on Monday.

She says so-called approved arrangements, under which some biosecurity activities are entrusted to established importers, are akin to "putting the fox in charge of the hen house".

Ms Jenkins called on Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to launch a broad ranging inquiry focused on quarantine practices and at least "ask the question" about whether there has been any corruption.

A spokesman for Mr Joyce said a "number of investigations" had been established and the temporary suspension of the raw prawn trade would allow the department to review risk management and compliance arrangements.

Losses for affected farmers have been put in the tens of millions of dollars and Ms Jenkins says that even if white spot can be eradicated, two years of costly testing will be needed for Australia to regain its white spot-free status.

White spot has a high mortality rate in prawns, but is not harmful to humans.

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