Shell of a job to prevent future prawn disease outbreaks

As the prawn industry gears up for a bumper Christmas period, a new method for testing prawns for a range of diseases is being held up as a way to prevent another devastating disease outbreak.

Brisbane start-up company Genics has been spun out of research done at the CSIRO into rapid and reliable testing of prawns for multiple diseases at once.

Melony Sellars led much of that research while working for the CSIRO and is now the chief executive of Genics after being cleared to take her work to the private sector.

Dr Melony Sellars has developed a testing method for farmed prawns that can detect multiple diseases at once.

Dr Sellars said the test they have developed, called Shrimp Multipath, is much more efficient than the tests now available to farmers.

“Current testing platforms only ever test for one or two pathogens at a time, but prawns may have up to four pathogens at any one time, from the 13 which they can be susceptible to,” she said.

“Shrimp Multipath detects multiple pathogens in one test in a highly cost-effective manner, with an unrivalled sensitivity to pathogens compared to current testing platforms.”

Queensland’s prawn farms account for about 40 per cent of Australia’s farmed prawns.

In the lead-up to the Christmas rush on seafood and prawns in 2016, the industry was rocked by an outbreak of white spot disease.

It was recorded in some prawn farms on the Logan River catchment south of Brisbane and spread to all farms in the region.

The virus cannot be passed to humans but is devastating to prawns, with some farms reporting up to 80 per cent of their stock lost in a few days.

Producers were forced to get rid of their remaining stock as biosecurity authorities worked to contain the outbreak.

One of the farmers caught up in the initial outbreak was Alistair Dick, the general manager of Gold Coast Tiger Prawns.

Three years on from the outbreak, he said they still haven’t fully recovered.

“One of the biggest hits to our business was the loss of the breeding program - you can imagine, being a livestock industry, losing your core breeding stock is a very bad thing.

“Losing the stock you have in the water is one thing, and it’s bad for cash flow, but losing all your future genetics, that is something that’s much harder to recover from.”

Mr Dick said since 2016 they had been spending about $100,000 a year on compliance testing for white spot and other diseases, and that bill could be potentially halved by using Shrimp Multipath.

Genics estimates its testing could also improve overall yields by 50 per cent by preventing diseases earlier.

Testing in the Logan river areas by environmental authorities this year showed no trace of white spot disease, and producers have ramped up their production again ahead of the Christmas period.

The testing method was being developed as the outbreak occurred in 2016, and while Dr Sellars said it was frustrating not having it ready to prevent that outbreak, it would hopefully prevent one in future.

“Seeing the pain of our customers and friends and what they went through made us even more motivated to deliver a commercial product that can help them manage these diseases,” she said.


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