Australia plans to fight invasive fish with herpes virus — some scientists are alarmed

Australian MP Barnaby Joyce talks plan to introduce herpes to carp
ABOVE: Australian MP Barnaby Joyce talks about the government's plan to introduce herpes to carp.

In an effort to fight an invasive fish species in Australia, the government is planning on releasing the herpes virus into its waterways, hoping it will wipe out the common carp.

However, several scientists are questioning this method saying the species-specific virus may not be effective against the fish and also poses a serious risk to global food security.

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Australia has long been trying to control the population of the common carp, an invasive species that was first introduced in the 1800s and now makes up for 80-90 per cent of the fish biomass in the nation’s largest river system.

This has caused ecological damage as carp are prolific breeders that compete with native fish. They also feed at the bottom of rivers, causing erosion and reducing water quality. The Australian government said it costs the country’s economy up to $500 million a year.

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In 2016, the government allocated C$14 million in a plan to release the herpes virus into the nation’s largest river system to kill the carp species. It would then infect carp with a strain of herpes called CyHV-3, which damage the kidneys, skin and gills of fish and killing up to 95 per cent of the species.

The government said it conducted extensive research to make sure native fish, birds, amphibians and other species in the river system could not contract the virus.

Australian Science Minister, Christopher Pyne said the virus would have no impact on humans, but the clean-up would be costly. Thousands of carp are expected to die after the virus is released.

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The event is being labeled as “carpageddon.”

“Suddenly, there will be literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of tonnes of carp that will be dead in the River Murray,” he said in a BBC article.

The government plans to release the herpes virus as early as 2019.

‘Serious ecological ramifications’

On Friday, six researchers published a letter in Science arguing that releasing the virus into Australia’s waterways is unlikely to be effective.

The effectiveness of the virus depends on environmental factors, such as having water temperatures between 16 C and 28 C. Carp that survive the initial viral epidemic in hot or cold spots would be able to replenish the population quickly, the authors stated.

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According to The Guardian, British scientists also published a warning about the virus in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal on Feb. 21.

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The researchers said the “irreversible high-risk proposal” could have “serious ecological, environmental, and economic ramifications.”

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They also said that releasing a virus that attacks the most commonly-farmed fish in the world could impact the global food supply and that the oxygen loss caused by millions of tonnes of rotting carp killed by the virus could “lead to catastrophic ecosystem crashes.”