The Planet

It’s Fish Versus Herpes In Australian Invasive Species Showdown

by Jed Oelbaum

May 2, 2016
A carp. Image by Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons

The great circle of life pits Earth’s creatures against each other in a constant battle of indomitable will and instinct. A lion brings down a swift-footed gazelle on an African plain. A tenacious mongoose and writhing cobra face off in a fight to the death. And now, courtesy of the Australian government, we can finally see the epic battle of natural forces we’ve all been waiting for: herpes versus carp. 

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that Australia’s new federal budget includes $15 million (U.S. $11.4 million) for a national carp control plan that will unleash a version of the herpes virus on the unsuspecting fish population. Those behind the plan hope to curb the feral carp, which scientists say are heavily degrading the country’s fresh waterways, crowding out other wildlife, and disrupting carefully balanced ecosystems.

According to Mashable, the proposal caused a massive spike in interest for the oily ichthys on Monday with, #carp trending heavily on Australian Twitter, and users turning out in droves to crack wise on the subject.

The herpes plan is “incredibly important because we are afflicted in this nation with these disgusting mud-sucking creatures, ” said Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during budget discussions Monday. Joyce’s speech, in which in his excitement for giving diseases to fish caused him to lose his cool, ended in a highly-memeable moment with the politician shouting the word “carp” angrily into the microphone over and over.

Though the fish were first introduced over a century ago, Australia’s problems with carp stretch back to the 1960s, when European carp from fish-farming operations got loose. Like many European invaders before them, they proceeded to move in, take the place over, and crowd out the natives. It’s estimated that the carp cost Australians hundreds of millions of dollars every year in environmental damage and lost economic opportunity.

“They are hardy and omnivorous and consume everything in their wake… There seems to be nothing good about them,” read an editorial in Australia’s Sunday Mail newspaper. 

And according to the country’s national science agency, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), “Carp now comprise up to 90 percent of the fish biomass in parts of the Basin. This is largely attributed to female carp producing up to a million eggs per year, and to the…fish’s tolerance for a wide range of habitats including degraded water.”

For more than seven years, CSIRO has been testing this carp-specific version of the virus, which used to be called koi herpesvirus, and is now referred to as Cyprinid herpesvirus 3. Finding no evidence that the virus can spread to other species and few concerning external environmental factors, agency researchers are planning to actually release the disease in 2018. They point to similar programs where viruses were used to cut back on pest species like the nation’s adorable-yet-invasive rabbit population, which has been plaguing Australia’s native fauna for 150 years. According to CSIRO:

“Just like rabbits these pesky fish multiply rapidly, reaching huge numbers quickly and are one of the most invasive and damaging pests of our freshwater ecosystems. Biocontrol agents have been successfully used to control rabbits in Australia, and we’re confident that a virus that has been killing carp overseas could do a similar job here.”

Australia’s ABC News reports Science Minister Christopher Pyne, who backed the plan, has referred to the it as “carp-aggedon,” pointing out, interestingly, that much of the program’s funding will actually have to be used to dispose of all the dead, herped-up fish. “We're looking at more than 500,000 tonnes of carp that will be killed, up to 2,000,000 tonne of carp,” Pyne told reporters in Adelaide on Sunday.

But while supposedly a vital step to local plants and animals bouncing back, this image of dead, floating fish choking the waterways is still disturbing to many Australians. And despite the diligence put into concocting the wildlife-control program, not everyone is quite so keen on the idea.  

For example, commercial carp fisherman Garry Warrick, who told ABC News he feared herpes-addled fish would pollute the rivers from which he derives his income. “There's going to be that many dead fish around, there won't be enough people to clean it up,” he said.

“I think a river full of dead carp is not going to be fantastic for business,” Robert Hughes, houseboat operator, told ABC News.

As far as disposing of the fish, ideas ranging from using the dead carp as pet food to grinding them up as fertilizer have been floated by the plan’s backers in the Australian government. In the meantime, for or against the herpes program, Australians are having a good time with this proposed virus-fish match-up. Take South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon for example, who—unable to keep himself from laughing at the words coming out of his own mouth—wanted to “congratulate Christopher Pyne on his plan to give herpes to carp.”

Xenophon went on, attempting to articulate the very real carp problem at hand to reporters. “There is a serious point to make here,” he said, while struggling to keep a straight face.

Display image via Mashable

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It’s Fish Versus Herpes In Australian Invasive Species Showdown