Australia is planning on releasing a herpes virus into the Murray River in order to kill off an invasion by European carp. The plan, nicknamed "carp-aggedon," by science minister Christopher Pyne, will take up to three decades to reduce the carp population by 95%.
Australia has tried something similar before. In the 1950s, it introduced the myxomatosis virus to combat an exploding rabbit population. According to Wikipedia, it worked rather well, taking the estimated rabbit population down from 600 million to 100 million in just two years. "Affected rabbits," says Wikipedia, "develop skin tumors, and in some cases blindness, followed by fatigue and fever; they usually die within 14 days of contracting the disease."
Cruelty issues aside, myxomatosis had problems. Surviving rabbits bred, passing on their genetic resistance. Today, it kills only half of the rabbits it infects.
Back to the modern day, Australia plans to release the cyprinid herpesvirus-3 strain into the river in 2018. "It affects the European carp by attacking their kidneys, their skin, their gills, and stopping them breathing effectively," Pyne told Australia’s ABC News. "They have the virus for a week before they show any symptoms and it suddenly kills them within 24 hours."
The virus is harmless to humans, say Pyne. Long-term effects, though, obviously will not be known until they manifest, if they ever do. Currently no other fish are know to be susceptible to the virus.
Why not unleash carp-aggedon right away? Logistics. The plan is expected to be so effective that the river will be packed with dead fish. "Suddenly, there will be literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of tonnes of carp that will be dead in the River Murray," said Pyne.
The project will cost around $11 million, with much of that going to clean up the mess. If you live anywhere near the river, you might want to take a long vacation starting the week after the virus is introduced. Possible methods for dealing with all those fish corpses are fertilizer, mass graves, or even pet food. This last sounds like a tricky sell to pet owners.
You may be worried that this scheme isn’t in the best of hands. If so, you might want to look away now, as the next part won’t help your confidence. Speaking to the ABC, Matt Barwick, of the Department of Primary Industries, claims that Israelis eat carp infected with the virus, although he seems to be mixing up the actual virus and a vaccine derived therefrom:
"They treat almost all of their carp grown for human consumption with a live attenuated vaccine to this virus, which is basically a weakened version of the virus," Barwick told ABC. "So there is up to 58 million individual carp that are eaten for breakfast in Israel every day, with this virus, and there's never been a single documented human health issue."
Fifty eight million million carp for breakfast every day? Israel has a population of 8 million, which—if Barwick has been quoted correctly—means a rather harrowing seven-carp breakfast for each and every Israeli, every single day. Possibly Barwick misspoke in his excitement over carp-aggedon.
The scheme seems destined for controversy, but these carp, introduced into the country during the 1800s and more recently brought to new hunting grounds by flooding, are destroying balanced ecosystems. If allowed to remain, the damage will likely be worse to the local environment.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish my carp and hummus breakfast. Only five more to go.