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Tasmania’s Stories

National award for scientist

Edition 193_IMAS

A Tasmanian scientist has been honoured with a prestigious national award for helping to unlock the mystery of a deadly virus decimating the oyster industry.

Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome – or POMS as it is commonly called – is devastating.

POMS is a viral infection that causes oysters to suddenly fall asleep with their shells open. Now vulnerable to predators and other environmental hazards, they are often dead within the day.

The virus is deadly to oysters but harmless to oyster eaters.

When POMS hit Tasmania three summers ago some farmers lost 90% of their oysters in a matter of days.

However, optimism is slowly returning to the industry and the work of Tasmanian scientist, Dr Sarah Ugalde, is making a big contribution.

“It looks like we are finally having some headway with this terrible disease,” Dr Ugalde said.

“The oyster industry is just starting to recover.

 “There is finally light at the end of the tunnel, although there is still a long way to go.”

While its effects are crystal clear, POMS itself remains a mystery: no-one knows what causes it, how it is spread, and most importantly how to stop it in its tracks.

Dr Ugalde - and the research team - from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), is working to answer those questions.

For this work, Dr Ugalde has just been awarded the Vice Chancellors Award run by Universities Australia.

“I am very honoured to receive such an important award which supports the communication of critical research,” Dr Ugalde said.

 The virus was first detected in France 11 years ago and arrived on Australia’s shores – near Sydney – in 2010.

In February 2016, without any warning, POMS turned up at Pittwater Lagoon in southern Tasmania. It quickly spread as far north as the east coast, infecting 60% of the state’s main growing areas along the way.

One of those hardest hit was second generation oyster farmer, Josh Poke, who owns the Estuarine Oyster Company at Pittwater.

“We lost one million dollars' worth of oysters in the space of just six weeks during that terrible summer,” Mr Poke said.

“That is almost one and a half million mature oysters.

“It was heart-breaking.”

Before the POMS outbreak Tasmania produced four million dozen oysters each year, with a farm gate value of $24 million.

“After POMS Tasmania’s oyster production went down by 45%,” Mr Poke added.

Since that 2016 outbreak, Dr Ugalde has been working closely with local oyster farmers like Josh Poke and conducting experiments in the field.

“Scientists need to understand how to farm, and farmers need to understand science,” she said.

As there is no cure for the virus which is carried by many small marine animals such as sea snails and mussels, Dr Ugalde’s work is focused on containing POMS through improved management practices.

“Eradication of POMS in the natural environment is not an option,” she said.

“The main thing we can do is learn how to manage it.

“Like any disease it takes a lot of time to figure out what works - and what doesn't.”

A key trigger for POMS appears to be oyster stress.

Dr Ugalde's research found oyster handling was one of the most important ways to reduce that stress and keep the oysters happy. Put simply, they need to be treated gently.

Timing is also crucial.

The POMS virus is activated in warm waters - above 18 degrees Celsius - and Dr Ugalde said oysters should never be moved when it is hot.

Oysters also need to be stocked at low densities, giving them plenty of space to grow.

“This research is helping farmers learn how to cultivate oysters in POMS-affected areas,” Dr Ugalde said.

“What they can do for the oysters. How they can de-activate this disease.”

Meantime, as Tasmania’s oyster industry wraps up its third season under the cloud of this deadly virus, it is clear that progress is being made.

Reflecting on the last few years, Sue Grau, from Oysters Tasmania, said: “This disease is still killing oysters and the industry is still recovering.

“However, the good news is we are adapting and changing and learning how to live with POMS.

“In the meantime, let’s not forget that Tasmanian oysters are the best in the world, and POMS does not affect human consumption.

“So, if there is one message we need to get out it is this: just keep eating our wonderful oysters.”

Image courtesy of Dr Sarah Ugalde

11 April 2018

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012–13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island’s land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named ‘Best Temperate Island in the World’ by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of kunanyi / Mount Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania’s highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King’s holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania’s predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world’s biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the State’s gross product in 2010–11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

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