Ex-chief vet defends abalone virus response

A former chief vet has rejected accusations he failed to control the spread of a herpes-like abalone virus, saying his response to the outbreak was guided by a parliamentary inquiry.

A former chief vet has rejected accusations he failed to control the spread of a herpes-like abalone virus, saying his response to the outbreak was guided by a parliamentary inquiry.

Dr Hugh Millar gave evidence in an $82 million class action against the state government in Victoria's Supreme Court on Friday.

Fourteen abalone licence holders are suing the government after the virus wiped out about a third of Australia's wild abalone industry, causing the value of their licences to plummet from about $6 million to below $1 million.

Dr Millar has been accused of acting too slowly to control the disease, which originated at the Southern Ocean Mariculture farm near Port Fairy in south-west Victoria.

Despite the farm reporting the outbreak to the Department of Primary Industries in January 2006, it was allowed to keep operating, pumping 40 million litres of virus-tainted water into the Southern Ocean each day.

By March that year, the virus had escaped from the farm, infecting wild abalone off Victoria's south-west coast.

The abalone licence holders are blaming Dr Millar and former Fisheries Victoria executive director, Peter Appleford, for failing to shut down the farm when they knew of the disease and the risk it posed to wild abalone.

But Dr Millar said the recommendations of a parliamentary inquiry into the DPI's handling of an outbreak of ovine Johne's disease a decade earlier, guided his actions.

The inquiry attacked the DPI for destroying sheep and goats on more than 20 farms, which were then unable to replace their animals for two years.

Dr Millar said the affected farmers told him that the so-called cure "was far worse than the disease".

He said the DPI's response to the outbreak also failed to eradicate ovine Johne's disease.

"It had a deep impact on my thinking because the [parliamentary] committee severely criticised the department and the way in which this program was implemented. The things that I particularly remember was that there was insufficient information to justify the program's implementation.

"It was implemented in haste, these are not my words but I'm paraphrasing the committee."

Dr Millar said while the DPI knew from the beginning of the outbreak the risks to wild abalone, the virus was an exotic disease that had never been seen in Australia.

The trial continues on Monday.

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