The Cable

Australia’s Plan to Unleash Carp Herpes Into the Wild Could Backfire, Scientists Warn

Another day, another Australian carp herpes controversy.


Scientists are criticizing the Australian government for its $11 million plan to unleash herpes on its carp population.

The plan could lead to “catastrophic ecosystem crashes” and “constitutes a serious risk to global food security,” researchers Jackie Lighten and Cock van Oosterhout warned in a new letter published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, an academic journal.

For those who weren’t closely following the issue of Australian carp herpes before this, here’s an overview of what’s going on:

Australia has a serious carp problem. The country imported European carp for fish farming in the 1850s, but some were accidentally released into the wild in the 1960s. Since then, their population has exploded and now millions are clogging up key river arteries. The fish now constitute over 90 percent of the aquatic biomass in Australia’s largest river system. They’re destroying the ecosystem and starving out native wildlife in the process, costing the country an estimated $500 million a year in economic impact.

So last year, the government came up with an idea to eliminate the fishy pest with some good old fashioned biowarfare: releasing a strain of carp herpes into the wild to let the virus thin out the population.

In a 2016 “Carp Press Conference,” Australian lawmakers said releasing a strain of carp herpes that leaves other native wildlife unharmed will wipe out 95 percent of the European carp population over the next 30 years to confront what they call the “Carpageddon.”

It’s one of those bold plans the Aussies thought might just be crazy enough to work. After all, using viruses to wipe out invasive species worked on those throngs of feral cats on South Africa’s Marion Island. And Australia’s hordes of invasive bunnies.

But Lighten and van Oosterhout warn there’s a high risk of the herpes strain spreading from Australia into the world’s oceans and harming other species in the long term. And in the short term, if the virus does its job, Australia will have to deal with “millions of tons” of dead carps decomposing its waterways, crashing the already fragile ecosystem in addition to probably making half of Australia smell really awful for a long time. And it may not even work, they warn, because of how fertile carp are; a single female carp can lay 10 million eggs a year — way more than the rabbits or cats they’ve fought with viruses before.

Australia doesn’t plan on releasing the carp herpes virus until 2018, so scientists still have a year to sound the alarm bells on this plan. In the meantime, Carpageddon continues unabated.

Photo credit: BERND WUSTNECK/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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