The Cawthron Aquaculture Park is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: Supplied.

Cawthron under fire for parasite response

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Nelson’s Cawthron Institute is refusing to answer allegations that it badly handled an outbreak of an oyster parasite that threatened a burgeoning aquaculture industry.

According to an investigation by the news website, Newsroom, scientific experts believed the Cawthron Aquaculture Park in Glenduan to be infected as part of a hushed-up biosecurity outbreak that is being investigated the Ministry for Primary Industries.

In January 2015, three months before its opening, the oyster-killing parasite Bonamia ostreae was discovered in samples from the Cawthron facility, which was breeding several different shellfish species in the hope of commercialising the research for farming.

Last year, Bonamia ostreae’s existence exploded into public view when the parasite was confirmed at a Stewart Island oyster farm. MPI ordered oyster farmers to remove their operations from Big Glory Bay.

Farms in Marlborough’s Tory Channel and Port Underwood – infected since at least 2015 – got the same order.

However, the Newsroom investigation says that MPI discarded advice from scientific and technical experts to remove Marlborough’s infected farms and restrict the movement of aquaculture vessels and equipment used there.

Those same experts raised concerns about “major biosecurity flaws” at Cawthron’s aquaculture park.

On May 31 last year, MPI contacted New Zealand’s Bluff Oyster Company, owned by Southlander Rodney Clark to say it was one of two farms to test positive for Bonamia ostreae.

Nine days later, Clark’s company received the devastating news that its oysters and equipment had to be removed. The business was finished and he blames Cawthron.

MPI refuses to confirm Cawthron was infected, however, Newsroom found confirmation of Cawthron’s infection in an MPI document published last year.

Cawthron Institute’s chief commercial officer Stuart Cooper did not respond to requests for comment from the Nelson Weekly or Newsroom. Instead, it says it was one of many organisations that cooperated with MPI’s investigation.

An MPI report, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, contains a scathing assessment of Cawthron’s response to Bonamia ostreae saying its biosecurity plan and procedures failed to address “major biosecurity flaws”.

Green-lipped mussels and Pacific oysters – potential carriers of the parasite – had already been transferred to the North Island, the report noted.

Allowing movements of potentially infected bivalve species from within the “contained zone” was likely to spread the disease, the experts warned.

The group was unimpressed Cawthron was keen to claim it was, or wished to be, free of Bonamia ostreae, “with no evidence to support that assertion”.

Among the 2015 advisory group’s key recommendations were removing oysters and equipment from infected Marlborough farms and adding commercial aquaculture vessels and equipment to the restrictions.

However, those recommendations weren’t followed.

MPI’s director of readiness and response Geoff Gwyn says removing the infected Marlborough farms would have been “extreme” and the decision to restrict shellfish movement “was the appropriate one, given the circumstances”.

Former Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy also says commercial considerations played no part in the decision, which he said was based on “science and risk mitigation”.

A December 2016 presentation given at Cawthron’s Nelson offices said the discovery of Bonamia ostreae had “major implications in terms of stock movements and therefore our research programmes”.

That caused alarm within Cawthron, which had received millions of taxpayer dollars to pursue its aquaculture research.

Gwyn rejects any suggestion MPI is too close to the industry to make hard decisions.

However, in mid-September, the Government announced its $250 million Endeavour round of science projects. Cawthron received the largest pledge, $14.6 million over five years, for research into “the risk to NZ aquaculture from infectious diseases and aquatic health issues”.

It’s an ironic twist not lost on former oysterman Clark.

“Good grief,” he says, when told of the $14.6 million grant. “Now that does make me wild.”

By Staff reporter with
Newsroom.co.nz