Prawn farm launches $40 million suit over white spot losses

Four years after white spot disease was found in Queensland prawn farms, one of the worst-affected companies is still seeking justice.

Jan 27, 2021, updated Jan 27, 2021
Gold Coast Tiger Prawns has claimed significant losses as a result of the 2016 white spot outbreak.

Gold Coast Tiger Prawns has claimed significant losses as a result of the 2016 white spot outbreak.

Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture, also known as Gold Coast Tiger Prawns, is taking action in the Federal Court against seafood companies Aqua Star, HTC and Oriental Merchant as well as the Federal Government.

White spot disease was discovered in southeast Queensland prawn farms in December 2016, causing havoc in the industry and undermining Australia’s claim to have virus-free stock. The disease was detected again last year.

GCMA alleges the government allowed the companies to breach rules around imported prawns, allowing the virus to be released into the environment where it contaminated the company’s prawn farms.

It points to the Operation Cattai, a government biosecurity blitz, that in June 2016 – six months before the outbreak – found 51 of 63 retail samples tested positive for white spot. According to the court documents, the companies implicated include those being sued by GCMA.

“The outbreak was the result of recreational fishermen using uncooked prawns that had been imported from Asia, likely China and/or Vietnam, as bait or berley when fishing in the Logan River upstream from the GCMA Logan Farm,” the court documents state.

This was also the finding of Dr Ben Diggles, an aquatic health expert engaged by the Queensland Government at the time.

In 2016, there were about 23 prawn farms in Australia, the bulk of them in Queensland, producing almost 5,000 tonnes of prawns each year valued at more than $82 million.

GCMA was a wholesale provider to Coles and Woolworths, had of the largest black tiger prawn farms in Australia, and won gold medals at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show.

However, GCMA has told the court that after the outbreak, it lost all of its live prawn stock, was forced to delay a $2.5 million expansion, and slow operations, with production not expected to reach previous levels until 2024. The company has referred to losses of $41.4 million, however the quantum has yet to be finalised.

GCMA argued that if it had been warned about the potential for a white spot outbreak, it could have taken precautionary measures such as closing the inlet from the Logan River and leaving prawn ponds empty after the 2016 harvest.

The government and the companies being sued have yet to fully respond to the lawsuit. A case management hearing is set down for March.

A Federal Government spokesman said that following the outbreak, a Melbourne-based importer and two of its senior managers were prosecuted and fined $80,000 over biosecurity breaches, while a Sydney-based importer was prosecuted and fined $20,000. He did not name the companies.

“It is not suggested that these companies or individuals were responsible for the white spot outbreak,” the spokesman said.

Administrative action was also taken, with 21 import permits revoked, one suspended, and 21 refused.

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