St. Peter's Fish endangered in Sea of Galilee

An unknown virus is blinding fish in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), causing them to starve to death.

When Tiberias fishermen catch St. Peter's Fish (tilapia) without one or both of its eyes, and almost black in color, they know that something is wrong. Nonetheless, these fish still reach market and stores, and from there to customers who have no idea what they are eating.

Only Menachem Lev, a veteran fisherman from Kibbutz Ein Gev, separates the diseased fish from the health catch, sending the diseased fish to lab in the hope that a cure can be found.

The mysterious disease has been attacking fish in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) for a decade, but has now expanded to epidemic proportions. The first stage of the 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.

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 in the Kinneret 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.

Laboratories in Israel and other countries are conducting a major research effort to identify the virus, and decode its operating mechanism, in order to develop a cure or vaccine. In the absence of authorized information, no one knows whether the disease is hazardous to people or if it has long-term ecological consequences. All that is known at this time is that it is a viral nervous necrosis (VNN) type virus.

Various research directions by American researchers have all hit a dead end, destroying hopes for a cure anytime soon.

Back at the Kinneret, the responsibility for handling the problem of the mysterious virus mainly lies with Ministry of Agriculture director general Yosef Yishai, who is leading a general effort to the problems of fishing in the lake. He promised the Knesset during a debate that solutions would be found, but it is not clear what this promise is based on.

A 12-year veteran of top Ministry of Agriculture posts under seven different ministers, Yishai is the man who makes the decisions. As the owner of a large dairy farm at Moshav Shilat, he may not deal with the dairy sector, but he has the last word on every other issue. He is quick to speak, has all the numbers at his fingertips, and an explanation for every problem. If you are not an expert on the data, he can easily drown you with arguments and numbers. He has the ability to convince that every flaw and fault has already been fixed, or is being dealt with.

There are several key personalities involved in the condition of the problematic and sensitive Kinneret basin. The first is fisherman Menachem Lev, who may be the most knowledgeable man about fishing in the lake. He has reprimanded Yishai and Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries Department Director Haim Anjoni about their handling of the subject. He has repeatedly sent sharply worded texts to top Ministry of Agriculture and Water Authority officials, who only realize just how right he was. It should be pointed out that the lethal virus in the Kinneret is just one of the problems he has mentioned.

Prof. Moshe Gofen, the former director of the Kinneret Data Center at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, has been considered as the top researcher about the lake for 32 years. He has been warning about the neglect of Kinneret and ridicules the promises of top officials.

Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries Department Director Dr. Oren Sonin has also warned agriculture ministers for years about the flawed and negligent management of the fishing sector, and of the preference for kibbutz fish farms. His warnings earning the label of professional troublemaker at the ministry, leading to his isolation, causing him professional and career harm to the point of ousting him from his position. In January 2012, he won temporary protection from the State Comptroller for his exposure of corruption, but the protection was not permanent.

It's not just the water level

In May 2011, then-State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss published a harsh report on the condition of fishing in the Kinneret, which confirmed reports published by "Globes". The main findings related to extreme negligence with regard to fish populations, the avoiding of conducting critical studies, non-enforcement of fishing regulations, the absence of veterinary supervision on the dismal hygienic conditions of fishing enterprises, which has resulted in the denial of export permits to Europe, and the failure to deal with the problem of cormorants, the main predator of St. Peter's Fish in the lake.

Lindenstrauss slammed Anjoni's decisions, which have harmed populations of immature fish. "Anjoni bears the responsibility for permitting fishing with illegal nets, which has harmed fishing in the Kinneret The picture that Anjoni presents about investment in studies and research is inaccurate."

LIndenstrauss goes on to say, "The Fisheries Department has not managed fishing in the lake properly, which is one of the reasons for the decline in the fishing conditions. Anjoni is responsible for this situation." He adds that the Fisheries Department's faults "raise real concern of ecological harm that is liable to turn the Kinneret where only a few fish can live."

Lindenstrauss's position was unequivocal and even the Ministry of Agriculture realized that Anjoni had to go.

The unknown virus

The bombshell of the unknown virus killing St. Peter's Fish exploded in the middle of this mess. The virus should not have surprised the Ministry of Agriculture, since Menachem Lev first warned ten years ago about blind immature St. Peter's Fish and their unusual mortality rate. Bu the ministry decided to do nothing, and the consequences are dire: the disease has become an epidemic. The proportion of the catch infected doubled from 10% three years ago to nearly 20% last year, and Lev says that half the catch of St. Peter's Fish is now infected, and that fish are dying in their thousands.

The tragedy does not end there. The disease has spread to other species, including barbel, carp, trout, and Tristramella simonis, and the mortality, while still low, is rising. This horrifying situation finally got something moving at the Ministry of Agriculture. In late 2011, Dr. Avi Eldar, a senior doctor in the Veterinary Service, was appointed to examine the problem. He quickly realized that it was premier scientific challenge, because the lethal virus was unknown to science.

Eldar, after verifying with leading global laboratories that the virus was unknown, initiated a research program to identify and figure out the virus's operating mechanism. He expects to have enough data to begin developing a treatment only by the summer of 2012. In other words, until the beginning of this year, the Ministry of Agriculture had answers to the lethal virus, and very little data about it.

In late January 2012, the Knesset State Control Committee held a special discussion on the condition of the fishing industry and on the Kinneret. Minister of Agriculture Orit Noked, damning Yishai in her soft style, said, "I instructed the ministry director general to act fast and with determination to correct the flaws." She then handed the right to speak to Yishai.

Holding a document of some kind in his hand, Yishai said, "Concerning the morbidity situation in the Kinneret, as part of the changes in the veterinary services, here too we have invested immense energies, because we searched and searched, but could not find. We tested here and we tested there, and we found nothing anywhere. Recently, following laboratory tests conducted by the best laboratories in the world, an RNA virus was discovered, which was identified only just now."

State Control Committee chairman MK Ronnie Bar-On asked, "What do you mean by 'recently'?"

Yishai replied, "Two months ago. I admit that Menachem Lev was a partner. Very intensive work was taken on the matter, the virus, an RNA virus, was identified."

Bar-On: "What does it do?"

Yishai: "It causes some kind of disease, but more important is how to treat it."

Kinneret researcher Dr. Moshe Gofen interjected, "Excuse me, it's called VNN, not RNA."

Yishai replied, "No, no. I am holding precisely what the head of the Veterinary Services sent me now by e-mail. He writes RNA."

Gofen: "No, that's its genetic material."

Bar-On: "Guys, why are you involving us in a dispute between academic giants? What does it do?"

Yishai: "It causes all kinds of symptoms, including blindness in fish and other symptoms."

Bar-On: "Fine. What does it do to humans?"

Yishai: "We're not sure that it does anything to people, but it is liable to jeopardize the Kinneret. That is why the Veterinary Services is now"

Bar-On interrupted, "Just a moment, dont rush me Blindness and jeopardizing the Kinneret what does that mean, jeopardizing the Kinneret? I want to know what it does to people who eat fish, what it does to the Kinneret. I want to know how the Kinneret will look, if we dont deal with this thing."

Yishai evaded the questions, saying, "We just now completed the studies, which is why I now received the answers during this discussion. I knew that the final stages of the study were underway, but I didnt know that they had already succeeded in identifying the virus. The Veterinary Services are now developing a compound to isolate this virus."

Yishai is misleading the public

The dialogue above leaves no room for doubt. Not only has the virus been identified, but the people of Israel can relax, because a compound is now being developed to isolate the virus, and because it is not certain that the virus will harm people. But, in fact, even now, six months after the Knesset committee meeting was held, the Ministry of Agriculture has not yet decoded the virus's mechanism, even if it knows more about its characteristics.

A week after Yishai's remarks to the State Control Committee, the true status emerged: A press statement by Ministry of Agriculture scientists said, "This is an unknown virus." Three months later, during a ministry meeting, Yishai said, "The issue is still being studied, and Veterinary Services director Dr. Nadav Galon is coordinating the effort." Nothing was mentioned about the identification of the virus or a cure.

Did Yishai mislead the Knesset and the public by saying things that were not true? The Ministry of Agriculture said in response, "All the claims raised by you are mendacious and baseless. We deny everything. We dismiss the charge. The virus has been isolated and identified by the laboratories of the Ministry of Agriculture's Veterinary Services, The Veterinary Services, together with leading research laboratories in Israel and other countries are developing preventative measures against the disease and strain-resistant fishes."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 26, 2012

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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