[Linked Image] Thursday, October 08, 2009, 15:00 (GMT + 9)

A recently discovered virus is killing off the Caribbean spiny lobster and placing the annual USD 27 million Florida industry in jeopardy.

Scientists at the University of Florida (UF) and other institutions have been awarded a three-year, USD 1.4 million-grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research transmission of the PaV1 virus.

The findings might lead to containment strategies and ways to identify infected lobsters, said Don Behringer, an assistant professor at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Discovering whether the virus is dispersed through long distances by lobster larvae is imperative. Infected spiny lobsters have been found everywhere from the Florida Keys and Mexico to Belize and St Croix.

"This project will give us insight into how pathogens are spread in the marine environment," said Behringer, a co-discoverer of the virus. "Anything we can do to understand how the disease spreads, and how we might limit its spread, has implications for management of the disease."

If it is confirmed that PaV1 is spread by lobster larvae, other marine animals that go through a free-floating larval stage may be affected, said Mark Butler, a professor with Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Virginia.

Researchers will examine possible forms of virus transmission, its effects on lobsters and the factors influencing local disease outbreaks, Butler said. Workshops will be held for fishers and resource managers in Florida and the Caribbean.

The virus was first discovered in 1999 by Behringer, Butler and Jeffrey Shields with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). They showed that the disease primarily kills juvenile spiny lobsters, though some only become carriers.

The PaV1 virus attacks blood cells and tissues, causing most lobsters to die from metabolic depletion, a condition characterized by loss of energy, Behringer said.

Beginning with the 2000-1 lobster season, harvest declined by about 30 per cent compared to previous harvest years - and PaV1 may be the cause. The harvest has not yet rebounded, said John Hunt, lobster biologist and programme manager with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Florida provides over 90 per cent of the US' spiny lobster, with a 2007 harvest of about 3.8 million lbs and a dockside value of USD 27 million, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DOACS).

The Caribbean spiny lobster is found in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and western Atlantic Ocean, from Bermuda to Brazil, Behringer said.

In the US, the spiny lobster represents less than 10 per cent of national lobster production, with Maine lobster accounting for at least 90 per cent, said the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Worldwide, Maine and spiny lobster each represent about one-third of the total harvest.