Queensland Fisheries Minister Craig Wallace closed 500 square kilometres to fishing in and around Gladstone Harbour in response to fish disease and illness in commercial fishermen on September 16.

The day after the harbour was closed the acting chief health officer Dr Michael Cleary was quoted as saying “… seafood that showed signs of damage, deterioration or disease should not be handled or eaten. Anyone who has concerns about their health, which might be attributed to the handling or consumption of seafood from the local area should seek medical advice.”

On October 6, the Minister for Fisheries announced the re-opening the harbour to fishing on the next day. On the same day a report from Biosecurity Queensland, Gladstone Fish Health Interim Veterinary Diagnostic Assessment Report Number 2, was released. But this report was not provided to the fishing industry until yesterday.

On that day minister went on to say: “Of 160 fish caught by Fisheries Queensland over the past seven days none displayed ulcerated lesions.”

An infected fish

This was immediately contradicted by a commercial fisherman who was employed to collect samples. He also contradicted the report published by Biosecurity Queensland on that day, the only Queensland government body with people qualified to assess fish health and to whom the fish sampled had been provided.

In the same story he was also quoted as saying: “Some had a slight discolouration which scientists believe could be caused by net damage, knocks against rocks or the fishes’ reaction to the parasite.”

Regarding reopening the closed area, the minister stated: “The acting chief health officer has also advised that no clear link has been established between the fish and infection cases identified in humans.”

Was the acting chief health officer provided with the report from Biosecurity Queensland before making the statement quoted by the minister?

A few days after the reopening of the closed area, the commercial fishing industry had to impose its own closure and banned fishermen from landing fish caught even outside the previously closed zone. Recreational fishing has been allowed to continue.

Visitors to Gladstone could be tempted to catch and cook up a “slow” mudcrab they found, not knowing that it was contaminated. Of all the testing undertaken by Biosecurity Queensland the most disturbing results, to date, were for mudcrabs:

“Prawn and mudcrab samples examined indicated an erosive shell disease that is most likely the result of bacterial infection by Vibrio spp, which are organisms found in marine waters. These bacterial are opportunistic and cause shell fouling with erosion due to chitinolytic activity.”

This is from the same genus of bacteria that may have been the cause of severe illness in the recreational fishermen who had a cut infected after fishing in the nearby estuary that flows into the Gladstone Harbour, nearly losing his life and losing his leg.

On October 10, Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries issued a press release four days after the Bisecurity Queensland testing results. The release states:

“General Manager of Habitat and Assessment Dr John Robertson said Fisheries Queensland had conducted a number of supervised fishing trips over the past week and results had been encouraging.

“I wish to make it clear that the closure in Gladstone wasn’t lifted by Fisheries Queensland because there are no sick fish, rather the identified conditions are not a concern,” Dr Robertson said.

“The decision to lift the closure was not taken lightly but made following expert advice and scientific test results …

“… The Acting Chief Health Officer has advised that no clear link has been established between the fish and infection cases identified in humans.

“Test results on fish samples have confirmed the symptoms were caused by red-spot disease and a parasite, which do occur in Queensland and are not unexpected given flooding earlier this year and the cool weather.”

But the opening line of the Queensland Biosecurity report says:

“A. The cause of the severe ulcerative lesions on the barramundi samples from Gladstone Harbour could not be determined. EUS (red spot) and bacterial infection have been ruled out as causative agents …” but there is no cause for these ulcers identified as yet, not their potential impact on human health.

One of the most disturbing statements in the Biosecurity report is:

“Prawn and mudcrab samples examined indicated an erosive shell disease which is most likely the result of bacterial infection by Vibrio spp. which are organisms found in marine waters.”

This bacteria, vibrio vulnificus, may be a species possibly linked to the infection that caused a recreational fisherman to lose his leg.

The Queensland Biosecurity Report also states that the completed testing of all samples will not be available for 6-8 weeks.

With all this spin, deceit and bluster by the Queensland government, it is easy to forget that all of these fish and public health issues are in and around the Geat Barrier Reef Marine Park World Heritage area. They are also associated with dredging of the harbour for maintenance and a liquid natural gas  plant. The dredging required for the LNG plant has barely begun and permits for it and offshore spoil disposal personally were signed off by the Federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke.

“It would be prudent, given the public and environmental health issues yet to be resolved, to both close the fisheries again and suspend dredging until at least the analysis being undertaken by Biosecurity Queensland is complete,” said Libby Connors, the spokesperson for the Queensland Greens.