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International Waters: Tough Australian Import Regs Might Get Tougher

Posted: November 25, 2013, 12:40 p.m. EDT


By John Dawes

Australia is known universally as a country with perhaps the strictest import regulations regarding ornamental fish. Despite this reputation, certain highly infectious diseases, such as that caused by the dwarf gourami iridovirus (DGIV), have been identified in stocks of post-import and post-quarantine fish.

Consequently, in September 2008, Biosecurity Australia (BA) initiated an import risk analysis to review the country’s ornamental fish policy with regard to quarantine risks associated with DGIV and other viruses, such as cyprinid herpesvirus (CyHV2).

Following a provisional report published in July 2010, the director of Animal and Plant Quarantine decided to delay any final decision until the results of a project (Document 2009/44 - Aquatic Animal Health Subprogram: Surveys of Ornamental Fish for Pathogens of Quarantine Significance) were known.

Moonlight Gourami
The moonlight gourami, along with two of its closest relatives, is on the approved list, but its remaining close relative, the snakeskin, is not. John Dawes

This document was published in June 2013. If its findings were to be approved by the director of Animal and Plant Quarantine and used to determine future quarantine policy, things could get really tough for Australian importers.

Even without any further restrictions, Australian importers regularly face import challenges that many of their colleagues elsewhere have never faced, nor are likely to face. Therefore, an already-tough situation could get even tougher for the continent’s ornamental aquatic industry and hobby.

The project confirmed that CyHV2, which affects goldfish, already is established in Australia, and goldfish no longer need to be certified free of the virus prior to import.

The situation regarding DGIV is different, according to the project report. For instance, the virus was found in approximately 20 percent of mixed gouramis from six consignments specifically imported for testing. Although the virus is known as the dwarf gourami iridovirus, it also was detected in blue/gold gouramis, kissing gouramis, thick-lipped gouramis, pearl gouramis and others.

While no bettas or livebearers were imported specifically for testing, DGIV was detected in livebearers obtained from retail outlets. As the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA) pointed out in its response to the report, this does not constitute proof that these were imported livebearers. It is possible they could have originated from domestically bred stocks. No bettas were tested from these retail outlets.

On one of the farms whose fish were tested as part of the project, the only fish to test positive were livebearers. Again, according to the PIAA, this could indicate that the fish tested from retail outlets might have been bred domestically and not imported.

Turning from imported specimens and those obtained from farms or retail outlets to those from established wild populations, specimens of blue/gold gouramis from two locations around Sheepstation Creek in Queensland were collected. Both samples tested negative for DGIV. The PIAA believes this is too restricted a sample to conclude that DGIV is not already present in the wild. The organization also believes that because there are many locations in Australia where livebearers are established, a representative sample of these should be tested and that, until this is done, it’s not possible to conclude that the virus is not present in wild populations.

If DGIV already is established within Australia, the situation is much the same as that found to apply to CyHV2. If so, strict, pre-import DGIV-free certification becomes unnecessary and irrelevant. However, the findings of the project have led the team to conclude (among other things) that:
• Clear evidence exists that exotic pathogens from the ornamental fish industry can cause disease and become established in farmed and wild populations of fish;
• Health certification in exporting countries is insufficient to prevent fish with exotic pathogens to be exported to Australia and that reliance on offshore authorities for risk management should proceed with caution; and
• Strengthening the policy dealing with the quarantine risks associated with DGIV and related viruses would be advisable, and that any policy revision should consider increased quarantine periods for species susceptible to DGIV.

The team also recommends that further studies be completed. For example, the report says that, "As iridoviruses are characterized as having a wide host range, there is a need to determine the susceptibility of a range of native fish species to DGIV.” It also states that "testing of wild populations of potential native and alien fish hosts is needed to determine if DGIV is in the wild.” Further, it recommends a policy revision "to encourage the production of ornamental fish” and "to protect domestic ornamental fish producers from incursions of exotic pathogens.”

The indications are that it will be some time before any decisive action is taken with regard to implementing any new import and quarantine regulations, but no one knows for certain at this stage how long this period is likely to be. What’s more, it would seem sensible that, before a final decision is taken, current quarantine requirements receive a very detailed examination.

At the moment, Australia has a list of approved freshwater species that may be imported, assuming, of course, that all existing legal procedures are observed. However, there are numerous baffling and unclear inclusions and exclusions among the 220 or so entries. Importation of any fish that does not appear on this list is prohibited.

As an example of the inconsistencies that occur in the present listing, following are some observations regarding the anabantoids, the group of fish to which the gouramis belong.

While all four Colisa species (referred to as Trichogaster by FishBase) are on the approved list, the situation regarding the traditional Trichogaster species (some of which are now referred to as Trichopodus) is different. Trichogaster trichopterus, T. leeri and T. microlepis appear on the list of freshwater species approved for import, but T. pectoralis, the snakeskin gourami, doesn’t. Neither do other anabantoids, such as the giant gouramis, Osphronemus goramy, O. laticlavus, O. exodon or O. septemfasciatus; or the delightful ornate paradise fish from Sri Lanka, Malpulutta kretseri. Only one species of licorice gourami, Parosphromenus, P. deissneri, is listed (only males), but there are currently 22 species in this genus, all of which have the same basic characteristics and requirements.

Only one species of chocolate gourami, Sphaerichthys, S. osphromenoides, is listed. Betta is listed as Betta spp., so, presumably, all 73 species currently known to science are allowed. Only one species of (traditional) paradise fish, Macropodus, M. operculari, is included (only males). The spiketail paradise fish, Pseudosphromenus spp., do not appear at all. Only two of the three species of Trichopsis are included (how anyone can decide that Trichopsis pumila and T. vittata are OK, but T. schalleri isn’t, is baffling). No Belontia species appear on the list, etc.

And these are just the anabantoids. Apply the same scrutiny to all other entries in the approved list and a monumental review seems in order.

On another tack, the report says that health certification in exporting countries is insufficient to prevent fish with exotic pathogens to be exported to Australia, and that "The reliance on off-shore authorities for risk management should proceed with caution based on the project findings.”

If Australia thinks it can’t rely on competent authorities (CA) in exporting countries, is it possible that the whole importation process could become more difficult than it actually is, or even practically unworkable, if well-established and respected CAs in exporting countries were to fear their professional reputation is being questioned or demeaned? And, if this is the case in regard to DGIV, could the same apply to other diseases and other fish species and genera?

No doubt the review process is executed to protect Australia’s native species and benefiting stakeholders. The hope is that in striving to achieve these valuable and widely accepted objectives, all stakeholders will form part of the complex consultation process that undoubtedly still remains to be undertaken to tackle the many unresolved issues highlighted by the project report.

Another hope is that whatever is agreed upon by the relevant authorities proves to be workable, both for the sake of Australia’s native species, as well as for an industry that provides a very necessary and worthy service to Australian hobbyists.

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