Unknown disease killing Kinneret fish

Initial signs of the problem were discovered ten years ago in small numbers.

The first stage of a mysterious disease affecting Kinneret fish begins in one of its eyes, which starts to pop out, and gets destroyed leaving an empty hole in the socket. Then the second eye is affected. In the third stage, the blind fish blacken and starves. Red spots appear on its body and then it dies. So far, there is no official answer whether the disease is an unknown virus, or a mutation of a virus, a bacteria or a parasite.

Initial signs of the problem were discovered ten years ago in small numbers. The phenomenon was first noticed by Menachem Lev, a fisherman from Kibbutz Ein Gev, a local expert on everything that happens in the Kinneret. The plague first affected St. Peter's Fish, which is considered sacred by Christians (from the story of the bread and the fishes). About a million Christian pilgrims visit Israel every year. Most of them visit the Kinneret and eat St. Peter's fish; the Ein Gev restaurant alone serves more than 300,000 fish dinners to pilgrims every year.

The problem has worsened since then, and it is not only St. Peter's Fish that are affected by the disease, but also the Jordan River tilapia raised in fish ponds in the Hula Valley, silver carp, carp, and mullet. 12-15% of the fish in the lake have already contracted the disease.

The Ministry of Agriculture denies the presence of this serious disease in the Kinneret. However, as a result of the numerous occurrences, a number of tests have been conducted in the last few weeks to identify the problem. The ministry's Fish Division laboratory at Nir David has concluded that the cause is not bacteriological. Its preliminary report in September found the characteristic symptoms in fishes' eyes. If the problem is a parasite, this will cause a major kashrut problem and the Rabbinate is liable to ban fish from the Kinneret. The Water Authority believes that the disease is genetic in origin.

Ministry of Agriculture Veterinary Services fish health director Dr. Avi Eldar is trying to discover whether a new or mutated virus is the cause of the disease. The Veterinary Services has not found an unambiguous answer, and Dr. Eldar has contacted a lab in Italy, which has not yet given its answer.

In the absence of information about the source of the plague, or whether eating infected fish risks human health, Prof. Moshe Gefen, a leading researcher of Kinneret fishes, warned about the problem five years ago. He now advises intensive fishing of the lake in order to remove as many infected fish as possible, test the water of all Hula Valley fish ponds whose water flows into the Kinneret, and intensify the investigation into the disease. Most of all, he advises determining whether the cause is viral, because if it is, it is a potential human health hazard. He also advises improving the genetic diversity of the fish in the Kinneret.

Concealing faults

Gefen and Lev have been warning about flaws in monitoring the Kinneret and in research on the lake and its fish for years. A "Globes" investigative report in November 2010 made claims that a report by the State Comptroller confirmed in May 2011. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss stated that the Ministry of Agriculture's Fish Commissioner Haim Anjoni was personally responsible for the situation, partly because he improperly granted permits for fishing with substandard nets, and for failing to deal with the problem of cormorants which destroy scores of tons of fish in the Kinneret.

The quantity of fish caught in the Kinneret has plummeted in the past decade from 1,800 tons a year to 400 tons. The average wholesale value of the catch is NIS 25,000 per ton.

Fishing industry sources say that an initiative in early 2010 by then-Minister of Agriculture Shalom Simhon for a two-year fishing moratorium is part of the ministry's concealing of its faults. The moratorium was cancelled after the fishermen petitioned the High Court of Justice.

In June, Minister of Agriculture Orit Noked told MK Zion Pinyan (Likud), who is close to Kinneret fishermen, "I take a serious view of the Comptroller report's findings, and intend to convene a meeting about it as soon as possible."

The Kinneret's 150 fishermen, along with Kibbutz Ein Gev and Kibbutz Ginossar are preparing to sue the Ministry of Agriculture for damages. They charge that the Fish Division's negligence and the violations by its director are responsible for the collapse of the fish catch and NIS 10 million in losses. Meanwhile, the first flocks of cormorants are due to arrive at the Kinneret any day.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 24, 2011

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011

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