Fears over radical plan to infect millions of 'feral fish' with herpes virus

Fishermen argue Australia needs to rethink it's relationship to invasive carp and have put forward an alternative solution.

Australian commercial fishers are pleading with the federal government not to release the herpes virus into river systems to combat plagues of invasive carp.

Introduction of the disease is being investigated as part of the National Carp Plan which aims to fight the fish with long-term biological control measures. But some local business owners are concerned doing so will harm an already struggling tourism industry.

Tracy Hill from Coorong Wild Seafood, southeast of Adelaide, argues the intended deaths of millions of feral fish could create “a big, stinky rotten carp soup” in waterways, potentially devastating local businesses.

There are concerns introducing herpes to combat Australia's invasive carp explosion could harm tourism. Source: Dr Stuart Ivor/Getty (File)
There are concerns introducing herpes to combat Australia's invasive carp explosion could harm tourism. Source: Dr Stuart Ivor/Getty (File)

“All the river shacks and tourist businesses suffered during the millennium drought, then that broke, we got back to normal and then Covid hit,” she told Yahoo News Australia. “We just came out of Covid and then we got the floods. If the carp virus is released it could wipe out a whole heap of tourist businesses.”

No one wants to eat carp with herpes virus

Instead of killing the carp through disease, Ms Hill wants to see the fishing industry get “creative” and find new ways to sell the species to diners. While the fish is widely shunned by Australians, she believes that’s just because they’re not caught or prepared right.

She says choosing not to eat carp is really a “first-world problem”. “I tell you what there would be people around the world who would love to get access to a fish protein like this,” she said. “I think we’re a bit arrogant in our luxury western civilisation sometimes. People think the only way to fix a problem is to kill it all, and get rid of it.”

Ms Hill believes its neutral-tasting flesh can successfully replace chicken mince in most recipes, making it an environmentally conscious filling in burgers, tacos and even san choy bow. By cutting it thin and adding salt and pepper, she's even been able to make it taste similar to calamari.

Her business has been successfully net fishing and wholesaling the species. It has been able to sell small quantities at Melbourne and Sydney fish markets for between $4 and $5 a kilo, and its owners would like to expand to catching tonnes of carp a week that could be sold for around $2 a kilo.

Left - a man filleting a carp inside Tracy's business. Right - carp prepared with salt and pepper.
Tracy Hill believes many Australians don't know how to catch or prepare carp properly. Source: Supplied

But to catch the species in large numbers, they would need to invest in a specialty trawler and the threat of the government sanctioning the release of herpes virus is making them nervous about doing so.

“No one will want to eat it if they do,” Ms Hill said. “We’re talking about fish that end up with lesions in them and then they basically rot from the inside out. You could also argue animal cruelty.”

Why Aussies think carp tastes bad

Although carp caught in muddy waterways can take on a pungent flavour, Ms Hill believes its line-catching carp that’s having the biggest impact on taste around the Coorong.

“What mainly makes them taste terrible is stress hormone. You can imagine what an animal is like after they’ve been hanging on a hook for 10 minutes, or even two minutes. Then most people just pull them out and let them flip around on the ground,” she said. “That’s no way to treat something you’re going to be eating.”

To reduce stress on carp, her business catches them in nets and then places them on ice to slowly stop the heart. The fatty outer layer is then removed and the bones are removed.

The government has stated "considerable work is required" before the release of herpes virus could occur and it would be one of many measures used to combat carp.

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