Scathing report influenced vet's decision on diseased abalone

A senior veterinarian 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 senior veterinarian 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.

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 less than $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 licence holders are blaming Dr Millar, Victoria's former chief vet, 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 department's handling of an outbreak of ovine Johne's disease a decade earlier guided his actions.

The inquiry attacked the department 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 the "cure was far worse than the disease".

He said the department's response to the outbreak also failed to eradicate ovine Johne's disease from Victoria.

"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," Dr Millar said.

"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, and what was really important to me, that there was almost a complete ... disregard for the impacts of the program on the people affected."

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

He said the department initially spent months investigating the exact cause of the outbreak at Southern Ocean Mariculture because it was an unfamiliar disease.

"The gaps in our scientific knowledge were significant and so that was a key issue. We needed scientific knowledge we did not have."

Dr Millar told the court that he had a general understanding of herpes-like viruses in animals, but had no experience with how that disease affected fish and molluscs.

The trial continues on Monday.

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