Plague on pilchards has scientists at sea


in Sydney

Australian scientists are to hold a crisis meeting tomorrow in an attempt to discover why pilchards are dying in their millions off the country's coast. From Sydney on the east coast to Perth in the west, more than 3,000 miles of the Southern Ocean are littered with dead pilchards stricken by a mysterious disease.

The fish started dying off the coast of South Australia in late March. The disease spread west, then east to Bass Strait, above Tasmania, and finally north to reach the coast off Sydney three days ago. Fishermen have reported sailing through carpets of dead pilchards and watching others breaching the ocean surface, gasping for air and dying. No one knows what has caused the disaster, why only large pilchards are dying and why other fish species, including those that live off pilchards, have not succumbed. The coasts of Namibia and Peru are the only places where scientists can recall observing fish dying on a similar scale.

"It's unprecedented here," said George Cresswell, an oceanographer with the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's leading research body. He belongs to a national task force of scientists from the CSIRO, universities and government departments which has been called to a crisis meeting tomorrow to discuss a phenomenon that threatens to wreck Australia's multi-million dollar pilchard industry.

Scientists know how the pilchards are dying. All of the fish examined have had serious swelling and damage to their gills, suggesting death from asphyxiation. "It's a bit like pleurisy," said Rick Fletcher, a senior research scientist with the Western Australian Department of Fisheries. A few weeks ago, he gathered evidence at Esperance, on the state's southern coast. "There were 30 to 40 dead pilchards every step I took," he said. At first, scientists thought that the deaths might have been caused by cold, nutrient-rich waters from the ocean depths bringing to the surface phytoplankton containing toxic algal blooms. But, while algal blooms were sighted near most of the kills, none were present in Tasmania, where the second wave of deaths occurred. Animal scientists have suggested a mystery virus. That does not explain why younger pilchards appear to have survived.

Teams of experts are now working along the waters just ahead of the death zones using satellite and aerial surveys to try to isolate possible oceanographic, climatic and other environmental causes. "It's spreading so fast that it defies logic," said Gustav Hallegraeff, a plant scientist of the University of Tasmania. "We're worried about the impact further up the food chain, on sharks, tuna, salmon and birds."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas