Anglers and commercial fishers in Gladstone, Queensland say a red parasite decimating the industry has spread from barramundi and sharks to prawns and other species.
Commercial operators are negotiating compensation for the loss of their fishing grounds as they are given over to dredging and construction of the LNG plants that are being touted as a massive boost for Queensland's economy. They say they are not finding enough fish and other seafood of sufficient quality to sell.
As negotiations continue, operators report they may lose their industry altogether. Fishing was reopened last month after a government-ordered shutdown in September, but continued catches of diseased fish resulted in Gladstone's own fish market refusing to take stock.
State Government scientists say fewer fish are being found with red lesions in the harbour but parasite infestation of barramundi may still be high.
Fisheries Queensland habitat and assessment general manager John Robertson said tests were continuing on fish inside and outside the harbour and the banana prawn catch, which was thought to be down 15%.
'Certainly we are not seeing the number of lesions that we initially saw in August,' Dr Robertson said. 'Things seem to have improved but whether we are getting less fish with parasites, we are still looking.'
In response, fishers maintained there has been no evidence of recovery in the harbour since troubles began five months ago.
'Harbour water is absolutely filthy from dredging. Fishermen think it’s a cover-up,' said Michael Gardner, Queensland Seafood Industry Association chairman.
Fishers surmise the culprit is related to a 46 million m3 dredging program, which is releasing heavy metals and/or acid sulphates into the water and causing high turbidity levels.
One theory is that a major outbreak of the monogenean parasite had taken place, just as it had in the Hinchinbrook Channel a decade ago, when it killed off about 50 tonnes of sea cage barramundi, Robertson said.
Fisheries Minister Craig Wallace notified Parliament that scientists are now focusing on species other than barramundi and particularly sharks, which were found to be affected by a large parasite different from the flukeworm affecting barramundi.
Sharks struck with the parasite also were observed in the Fitzroy River near Rockhampton and the Kolan River northwest of Bundaberg. State Government scientists informed that even though fewer fish are being found affected with red lesions in Gladstone harbour, parasite infestation may still be high in barramundi.
The State Government has not yet disclosed the full test results.
The parasite causes pea-sized tumours in prawns and leaves turtles sick and distressed before they die. Sharks have been found with red rashes covering their bodies in recent months. Scientists from the Environment Department insist they cannot find any impact on water quality that would harm fish health.
More at www.qld.gov.au/gladstoneharbour