Recent environmental biosecurity performance
This chapter addresses paragraph (a) of the committee's terms of
reference, which specifically concern 'recent biosecurity performance with
respect to exotic organisms with the potential to harm the natural environment
detected since 2000 and resulting from accidental or illegal introductions from
overseas'. The chapter is divided into the following sections:
considerations when assessing biosecurity performance;
national statistics and information on recent incursions;
regional statistics and information on recent incursions;
myrtle rust incursion; and
tramp ant incursions.
Considerations when assessing biosecurity performance
As discussed in chapter 2, the World Trade Organisation Agreement on
the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement)
requires each signatory to define what it deems to be an 'appropriate level of
protection' (ALOP) to 'protect human, animal or plant life or health within its
territory'. Australia's ALOP, which was agreed in 2002, is defined as 'providing
a high level of sanitary and phytosanitary protection aimed at reducing risk to
a very low level, but not zero'.
The departments of agriculture and the environment submitted that the
reduction of biosecurity risk to zero is not realistic as it would require a
complete halt to international trade and travel. It is on this basis that the
'Australian Government contributes, in collaboration with state and territory
governments and industry to the preparation for, and response to, exotic pests
and diseases should they be detected within Australia'.
As such, Australia aims not to completely eliminate biosecurity risks but to
reduce them to an acceptable level.
The committee heard evidence that Australia's definition of an
acceptable level of risk was not clear enough to guide Australia's biosecurity
activities. Mr Richard Stoklosa commented with regard to Australia's ALOP:
It does not really say what the policy is. It says 'low but
not zero', but what does that mean operationally? I do not think many people
can really operationalise that into saying: 'Right, I know what that means. I
know that, if there are 10 trees infected with something that doesn't look
right, that's what triggers an eradication, a big investigation and a
response.' That is the world I come from, where there are very clear objectives
and very clear criteria for when to act. I think that is missing, frankly.
A similar situation exists with Australia's commitment under the Australia's
Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030, target 7 of which is:
By 2015, reduce by at least 10% the impacts of invasive
species on threatened species and ecological communities in terrestrial,
aquatic and marine environments.
There is no accompanying detail provided regarding how the impacts of
invasive species should be quantitatively measured. Dr Booth, Invasive Species
Council, argued that although this target appears precise, there is no way of
determining whether it has been achieved:
It is a target. It is a very quantitative target. The trouble
is that we do not have a baseline, so we cannot measure that target. It is
basically a pointless target. How can you judge a 10 per cent reduction in
impacts when you do not have the baseline.
The committee sought further information from the departments of
agriculture and the environment on what progress had been made against this
target and how that progress is being measured. In response, the Department of
Agriculture cited a series of ongoing actions and investments made by the
Commonwealth Government as evidence of progress towards this target and made
reference to the Australia's fifth report to the Biodiversity Convention, which
summarises progress made towards the Aichi targets in the period 2009–2013.
The report states that target 7:
...is proving more challenging, due to the absence of baseline
data and suitable monitoring and measurement methodologies. Australia is due to
review its progress towards ABCS [Australian Biodiversity Conservation
Strategy] targets and other biodiversity-relevant national targets in 2015.
Beyond the difficulty of determining what level of incursions and of
what type might be deemed to be acceptable when managing risk to a 'low level,
but not zero', the committee received evidence that environmental biosecurity surveillance
is not sufficiently developed to establish with confidence the extent of
incursions. The issue of surveillance is discussed further in chapter 5, but it
should be noted that the figures presented below are not precise for this
An alternative method of evaluating Australia's recent environmental
biosecurity performance is to examine how the biosecurity system has responded
to specific incursions to determine whether these responses might be improved
in future. This is the aim of the discussions of the myrtle rust incursion and
the tramp ants incursions in the latter part of this chapter.
National statistics and information on recent incursions
The departments of agriculture and the environment submitted a table
detailing detected incursions of exotic pests and diseases and their potential
environmental impact since 1 January 2009, including location, likely entry
pathways, responses, dates of eradication if applicable, and outcomes of
responses. The bulk of this list is made up plant pests and weeds, but also
includes one aquatic animal disease, two marine pests and two ant species.
With regard to this data, the departments cautioned that detection of
pests and diseases depends upon surveillance activities, among other factors,
which means that detection does not necessarily indicate an incursion occurred
recently. The departments also commented on the rate of plant pest incursions
and the state of scientific knowledge in this field:
For plant pests, on average there are two new pests reported
to the Department of Agriculture by the state or territory governments each
week, many relating to extensions of geographical or host range or new variants
detected through improved diagnostic techniques. Exotic plant pests and other
invertebrates are considered in accordance with the EPPRD or NEBRA, and
following initial investigations, are often found to be widespread or found to
be a previously undescribed native or introduced species. It is estimated that
only 30 per cent of Australia's and 20 per cent of the world's insects have
been described; and only 5 per cent of the world's viruses (Chapman, 2009).
Given the large number of species associated with plants, there is also often a
lack of available scientific information available to inform a decision on
potential impact to the environment or production.
The committee notes that in a significant number of cases listed in this
table, it has been determined that it is not technically feasible to eradicate
the pest or disease.
The CSIRO reported that incursions of invasive species with the known
potential to have a high impact on the environment are regularly detected in
Australia. As noted above, accurate estimates of detection rates are difficult
to produce as consistent monitoring and reporting is not currently undertaken
across the states; however, the CSIRO provided the following estimates of
current rates of incursion for different groups of organisms:
Plant naturalisations 10–20 per
Invertebrate pests 2–4 per annum
Plant pathogens 10–14 per annum
Animal diseases no data—but new
strains likely to arrive in wildlife and pet trade
Vertebrate pests <1 per annum
(most recently as pet fish).
The CSIRO also stated that there are no detailed analyses of how these
incursion rates are changing over time.
In its evidence, the CSIRO elaborated on this estimated incursion rate by
stating that scientists consider that, as a rule of thumb, one in ten of the
species that make it across the border become established and that, of these
established species, one in ten go on to have a high impact. As only one in 100
incursions go on to have a high impact, it can be very difficult to pick out
which species are of concern:
It is the 10 per cent rule. It is what we call the base rate.
The number of new species that come in that actually establish and become
highly impactful is very small, and that is why it is always hard, in a risk
assessment process, to effectively pick out those individual species from other
species that would not have those impacts.
The Invasive Species Council submitted a list of incursions of organisms
with the potential to harm the environment since 2000, including locations,
likely pathways, potential impacts and actions taken.
The Invasive Species Council also provided the committee with a list of
24 organisms that are not permitted in Australia but have nonetheless made
incursions since 2000 and have become naturalised, each with harmful
The Invasive Species Council also provided a list of 12 organisms that
are permitted for private keeping in Australia but which have escaped or been
released into the wild and have, or may have, established breeding populations.
The majority of these organisms are fish thought to have been released from
Finally, the Invasive Species Council provided a list of 21 species that
have been detected in the wild from 1999-2010 but which are not known to have
established themselves in Australia. The Invasive Species Council notes that
this category of detections represents both a biosecurity failure, in that the
entry of these organisms was not prevented, and a biosecurity success in that
the organisms were eventually detected and in some cases removed or eradicated
before becoming established.
With regard to incursions of exotic vertebrates, Henderson and Bomford's
Detecting and preventing new incursions of exotic animals in Australia, which
'presents data on incursion and interceptions of exotic vertebrates in
Australia that have occurred within the country and at the national border'
between 2001 and 2011, came to the following conclusions:
This study has demonstrated there is a wide variety of exotic
species intercepted entering Australia, and being kept or released illegally
within our borders. Novel exotic species (that have not widely established)
have also been detected at large, as individuals or small populations. Many of
these species have potential to significantly impact the environment, economy
or society. Some of the documented seizures from private keeping involved dozens
of animals from a single residence (such as corn snakes, boas, red-eared
sliders and squirrels), showing immediate potential for high propagule
pressure. The data we have presented is unlikely to be the whole picture, due
to technical issues (eg database interrogation) or incomplete reporting
systems. However, it is indicative of the range of exotic vertebrate species
turning up in Australia and at the border.
The Nursery and Garden Industry Australia (NGIA) submitted that
Australia experiences approximately 40 exotic pest incursions each year,
although it did not provide details of how this figure was derived. The NGIA
further noted that it expected a combination of increased global trade and more
frequent international travel by both tourists and residents would put more
pressure on biosecurity measures.
The NGIA provided a list of emergency plant pests that it has responded
to over the past 15 years, some of which were eradicated, some dealt with under
management plans and others recognised as endemic pests and treated as such.
The list does not distinguish between pests that are primarily of concern due
to their impact on agriculture and those that primarily affect the environment.
With respect to the red imported fire ant, the NGIA stated that its
members were facing over $18 million per year in movement protocol compliance
costs, totalling over $210 million over the past 14 years.
As noted above, given that it is not possible to entirely eliminate
biosecurity risk whilst maintaining international travel and trade, there are
no absolute markers for success or failure with regard to environmental
biosecurity in Australia. The figures provided above demonstrate that
incursions by invasive species that may adversely affect the environment are a
regular occurrence. However, submitters and witnesses presented differing
evaluations of this situation.
The Invasive Species Council submitted that, while Australia does enjoy
trade advantages due to the state of agricultural biosecurity, its record on
environmental biosecurity has been poor:
Australia is a world leader in the extent of invasive species
threats to the environment. Invasive species have already caused the extinction
of more than 40 Australian mammals, birds and frogs, and are second only to habitat
loss in the numbers of Australian species and ecological communities they threaten.
We lead the world in mammal extinctions due to invasive predators, and many more
mammals are on the brink. More than 70% of 1700 species listed as nationally threatened
and more than 80% of listed ecological communities are imperilled by introduced
animals, plants or diseases...Invasive species such as fire-promoting weeds and hard-hoofed
herbivores cause extensive damage, and have altered the ecological character of
many landscapes – for example, weeds account for 43% of the 120 most widely distributed
plant species in New South Wales. Australia's most recent State of the Environment
report (2011) gave the worst possible ratings for invasive species impacts on biodiversity:
'very high' and 'deteriorating', and found that management outcomes and outputs
The Invasive Species Council conceded that 'the damage already done is
mostly due to species that came into the country long ago when biosecurity
systems were rudimentary and focused primarily on agriculture and health
risks', but argued that 'new invaders are still arriving at a rapid rate, and
many are likely to cause great harm to the natural environment in the future.'
Dr David Guest submitted that Australia's recent performance has been
Australia's recent biosecurity performance has been poor,
resulting in significant risks to environments and industries. In 2010 alone,
26 exotic pests and pathogens escaped into Queensland, and since then
incursions of myrtle rust, chestnut blight, cocoa pod borer, the Asian Honeybee
and forestry pests in wooden pallets from China have been reported in
Queensland, NSW and Victoria, each with potentially devastating consequences.
The WWF submitted that the 'numerous new incursions of serious pests
detected since 2000, and repeated incursions of existing eradicated pests,
suggest systemic flaws in biosecurity'.
However, the departments of agriculture and the environment submitted
that it is not possible to achieve zero risk in any sector of biosecurity and
that biosecurity threats 'are effectively managed using a risk-based approach'.
Regional statistics and information on recent incursions
The following statistics relating to distinct regional areas were
provided to the committee during its inquiry. They provide a partial picture of
recent invasive species incursions in each area.
New South Wales
At the time of providing its submission, the New South Wales Natural
Resources Commission (NRC) had recently completed a review of weed management
in NSW—Weeds – time to get serious.
As such, its submission focused on communicating relevant findings of this
The NSW NRC reported that approximately 2,300 weed species are
considered a problem for natural ecosystems in Australia and about 10 species
are added to the list of invasive weed species each year.
With regard to biosecurity performance since 2000 in New South Wales, the NRC
reported that an average naturalisation rate of 18.7 taxa per year for the
Finally, the NRC reported that weeds threaten around 40 per cent of vulnerable
and endangered species in New South Wales and 89 per cent of endangered
Recent notable weed incursions in New South Wales include the orange
hawkweed in Kosciusko National Park and the tropical soda apple in the upper
Macleay Valley, which has since also been discovered in the Namoi and Border
A new incursion of red imported fire ants was detected at Port Botany in
Sydney in December 2014.
Red imported fire ants had not previously been detected in New South Wales. The
New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries stated that this outbreak was
not related to red imported fire ant incursions in Queensland and that
eradication efforts had commenced, including the use of baits and pesticide.
The minister also stated that eradication efforts are being informed by
protocols adopted under the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program,
which is a program managed under the NEBRA.
The Queensland Government noted that new biosecurity legislation, the Biosecurity
Act 2014, had recently been passed by the Queensland Parliament, which
'considers impacts of pests and diseases on human health, social amenity, the
economy and the environment'.
The Queensland Government also emphasised its 'high risk status for the entry
of pests and diseases across Torres Strait' and stated that it 'will be
consulting with key stakeholders on our intent to maintain Cape York Peninsula
as a special zone to prevent southward movement of pests and diseases of
concern to Queensland'.
The Queensland Government also provided information on both yellow crazy
ant and red imported fire ant incursions, which are discussed in more detail
Wet Tropics Heritage Area
The Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA), which protects and
conserves the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in Queensland, submitted that the
area under its care faces particular challenges with regard to invasive species
due to its proximity to Papua New Guinea, the close proximity of an
international port and airport, its exposure to tropical cyclones and its
favourable growing conditions.
The WTMA reported that over 500 weeds have become naturalised in the
area and that the 'numbers of new weed species have increased more rapidly in
Further, many of the species on the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy
target list are becoming established in the wet tropics region.
Since 2000, the yellow crazy ant, the electric ant and the Asian honey
bee have been discovered in the wet tropics area. Although tilapia, a group of
exotic freshwater fish species, were introduced in 1989 and subsequently spread
to the wet tropics area, the WTMA reports they continue to be deliberately
spread to additional waterways.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) highlighted recent
incursions by the Asian green mussel as an issue of concern as it can lead to
environmental impacts such as 'declines in species richness and abundance of
native species and in some cases total exclusion of species', along with
economic damage resulting from fouling of vessels and coastal infrastructure.
The Asian green mussel was detected in the waters of the Great Barrier
Reef at Cairns in 2002 and in 2007–8, at Gladstone in 2009 and at Hay Point in
GBRMPA also submitted the following list of recent examples of invasive
species detected on the islands of the Great Barrier Reef that have required a
response to minimise environmental harm:
African big head ant—Tyron Island;
Black rat—Boydong Island;
Fire ants—Curtis Island;
Goats/deer—High Peak Island;
Goats/lantana—St Bees Island;
Rubber vine—Magnetic and Gloucester Islands;
Guinea grass—Lizard Island; and
Introduced flora and fauna—Lady Eliot Island.
Environmental Biosecurity on Australia's islands is discussed further in
The Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food submitted that
Western Australia remains 'relatively free of invasive species that adversely
affect our agricultural industries and environment' and remains free of some
invasive plants and animals that are present in other states and territories.
The Department of Agriculture and Food also supplied a list of weeds
with both environmental and agricultural impacts or primarily environmental
impacts that it had responded to since 2000, along with the most likely pathway
by which each weed arrived:
Prickly acacia (Acacia nifotica)
in the East Kimberley (2006). Most likely pathway: seeds in cattle.
Mimosa (Mimosa pigra) in
the East Kimberley, specifically: Ivanhoe, near Kununurra (Nov. 2009);
south-east margins of Lake Argyle (Aug. 2012); Parry's Lagoon, near Wyndham
(Nov. 2012). Most likely pathway: not known.
Rubber vine (Cryptostegia
grandiflora): West Kimberley, Willare Bridge near Derby (2005); East
Kimberley, Lissadell Station (mid-2008). Most likely pathway: Possibly a garden
escape from Lissadell Station.
Opuntioid cacti (various species)
in the Eastern Goldfields and the southwest (since 2013). Most likely pathway:
escapes from cultivation, or old persistent plantings; also, some natural
spread i.e. birds, floodwaters.
Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius):
Collie (2012). Most likely pathway: escape from cultivation.
Bitou bush (Chrysanthemoides
monilifera subsp. rotundata): Perth Metropolitan Area, Kwinana
(Found in July 2012 but had been there for some years). Most likely pathway:
seed contaminant of industrial machinery or equipment shipped from interstate.
Amazon frogbit (Limnobium
laevigatum): Perth Metropolitan Area (2012/13). Most likely pathway:
deliberate release from aquarium or ornamental pond.
Spanish heath (Erica lusitanica):
Denmark (May 2013). Most likely pathway: escape from cultivation, or dumping of
Praxelis (Praxelis clematidea):
East Kimberley, near Broome (early 2008). Most likely pathway: seed contaminant
of agricultural produce or seed-for-sowing.
The Department of Agriculture and Food also submitted that it had
responded to the following vertebrate pest incursions in 2013–14:
species from overseas detected at warehouse facilities post import
Common Wall Gecko, Moorish Gecko
Asian house gecko
animals intercepted at border checkpoints by Quarantine WA
removed from the wild (pathways unknown)
39 prohibited birds
197 declared pest birds
17 northern palm squirrels
3 red-eared slider turtles
The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TGFA) stated that
Tasmania has 'fewer pests, diseases and weeds when compared to mainland
Australia and internationally'.
However, TGFA nominated a number of species that are of environmental
biosecurity concern, including serrated tussock, foxes and myrtle rust.
Although serrated tussock was first detected in Tasmania in 1956, it was
the subject of an eradication program in the 1970s and 1980s and came close to
complete eradication. However, it has now spread to most parts of Tasmania,
including King Island. The TGFA described the impact of serrated tussock on
industry and the environment:
Not only is serrated tussock indigestible to livestock, it is
threatening the biodiversity values of Tasmania's native grasslands, displacing
native species and often going undetected until infestations reach a large
size. Serrated tussock will also invade other vegetation types such as grassy
woodlands, and coastal communities.
The Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and
Environment (DPIPWE) has conducted a fox eradication program since 2006. This
program was begun in response to 'an accumulation of evidence that indicated
fox activity in Tasmania'. The program aims to 'eradicate foxes from Tasmania,
reduce the risk of future fox incursions and develop community awareness of the
serious threat foxes pose' and is currently in its final phase.
DPIPWE summarises the expected impact of foxes on the Tasmanian
environment, should they become established, as follows:
Should foxes become established in Tasmania, over 70 native
vertebrate species would be at risk. Of these, 34 species have locally
restricted ranges, 16 are suspected to be already declining in distribution and
12 species are threatened according to Commonwealth or State threatened species
legislation. It is quite possible that at least 5 wildlife species will be
driven to extinction. Numerous invertebrate species are also at risk.
Locally widespread species like ducks, shorebirds, ground
nesting birds, blue tongue lizards, mountain dragons, skinks, frogs, little
penguin and platypus are also at risk and would decline in the Tasmanian
landscape if foxes establish. The flow-on effects through food chains and
ecosystem balance must also be considered an unknown factor.
Of particular concern is the interaction of foxes and Tasmanian devils:
In the past, devils have probably been playing a role as a
'buffer' species for any foxes that have entered the state, providing competition
that may have prevented fox establishment. However, the population decline of
the Tasmanian devil, as a result of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease, partly
removes this barrier and makes the fox eradication effort all the more
If foxes fill the void created by lower devil numbers, it
could prevent the Tasmanian devil from re-establishing, should the disease be
Finally, although myrtle rust has not been detected in Tasmania, TGFA
cautioned that, should it arrive, it would have a dramatic impact on the
environment given the large proportion of land area taken up by eucalypt
The Government of South Australia discussed three examples of recent
incursions with environmental impacts. Mexican feather grass was imported and
widely distributed under an incorrect scientific name and has the potential to
'invade and degrade large areas of native woodland and grassland, and pastures
for livestock production.' The South Australian Government worked with the
nursery industry and home gardeners to identify this weed and is conducting
monitoring at sites where it has been detected and destroyed.
Southern bent wing bat pups at Naracoote caves were the subject of mass
mortalities 2008 and 2009, with over 10 per cent of the population affected in
2009. The deaths appear to be consistent with a pox virus, but the origin of this
disease is unknown. The southern bent wing bat is already an endangered
The South Australian Government also reported that in 2013 more than 60 bottlenose
and common dolphins were found dead on beaches at Gulf St Vincent. Their deaths
were caused by the dolphin morbillivirus; however, it is unknown how the virus
entered South Australian waters.
Further incursions of note in South Australia since 2000, and their
likely pathways, include:
Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans) – illegal
Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) – illegal keeping
Cane toad (Bufo marinus) – stowaway from interstate
Indian myna (Acridotheres tristris) – likely stowaway from
Caulerpa (Caulerpa taxifo/ia) – likely dumping of aquarium
The Nature Conservation Society of South Australia submitted the
following information on plant incursions and their impact on species listed under
the EPBC Act:
More than 1400 exotic plant species have become naturalised
in South Australia, of which several hundred impact significantly on
agriculture, the natural environment (including freshwater systems) and
communities. About 65 per cent of weeds are escaped garden plants, many of
which are still traded. Garden escape plants continue to threaten or adversely
affect at least 25 EPBC listed species and at least 3 EPBC listed ecological
communities in South Australia and without further sustained effort these
figures will only increase.
Many submitters commented on the recent myrtle rust incursion and the
committee also discussed the response to this matter with witnesses. Myrtle
rust, a native of South America, is described by the Department of the
Environment as follows:
Myrtle rust, which is caused by the fungus Uredo rangelii,
is a disease which affects trees and shrubs in the Myrtaceae family of plants.
When severely infected, young plants and new growth may become stunted and in the
worst case may die. The Myrtaceae family of plants includes Australian natives
like bottle brush (Callistemon spp.), tea tree (Melaleuca spp.)
and eucalypts (Eucalyptus spp.).
Myrtle rust is not native to Australia. It is not known how
myrtle rust entered Australia. Plant rusts are highly transportable. Their
spores can be spread via contaminated clothing, infected plant material, on
equipment and by insect/animal movement and wind dispersal. These
characteristics make rust diseases extremely difficult to eradicate. At
present, there is limited knowledge of the impacts and behaviour of myrtle rust
under Australian conditions.
Myrtle rust was first detected in Australia on the Central Coast of New
South Wales in April 2010 and was subsequently detected in south-east
Queensland in December 2010.
Myrtle rust infections have now been detected as far north as the wet tropics
area of Queensland, along the entire New South Wales coast and in Victoria,
mainly at production nurseries and wholesale outlets in or near Melbourne.
Although myrtle rust is considered to be 'very well suited' to coastal areas of
New South Wales and Queensland, areas in the south-west of Western Australia,
southern South Australia, northern Tasmania and large parts of Victoria are
considered to be either 'marginal' or 'well suited' to the disease.
Impacts of myrtle rust
The Invasive Species Council submitted that Australia is in the very
early stages of invasion by myrtle rust and that the 'impacts so far indicate
it will have very serious ecological impacts.' The council further stated that:
So far, more than 350 native species (more than 10% of native
Myrtaceae) have proven to be susceptible (in the laboratory or in the wild). This
number is expected to increase. About 20% of the >300 species susceptible in
the wild so far are 'highly' or 'extremely' susceptible. In Queensland, 48 species
have been rated as highly or extremely susceptible. The impact on flower and fruit
production in some species is 'significant'. The pathogen is established in a wide
variety of natural ecosystems—rainforests, heathlands, woodlands and wetlands—as
well as in urban areas.
Mr Anthony Cannon described the potential impacts of the incursion as follows:
The full impact of myrtle rust on individual species of
Myrtaceae in the Australian environment is not yet understood. Reports are that
it has already impacted on growth, flowering, fruiting and seed viability of a
number of species. Potentially the rust could impact on species diversity and
also on fauna, as both habitat and food availability are impacted.
Due to the presence of myrtle rust in Australia there is a
risk that a new variant of the rust complex could enter Australia and be more
difficult to detect. A more aggressive variant of the Puccinia psidii
complex could have an increased impact. The incursion of the second variant
also raises the risk of recombination and greater adaptation to the Australian
environment. Biodiversity and economic losses could be much more increased.
Response to myrtle rust incursion
Many aspects of the management of the myrtle rust incursion attracted
comment during the inquiry, including the adequacy of surveillance and early
detection, decision making in the initial response period (including the role
funding may have played), confusion regarding the name of the disease, flaws in
attempts to contain the spread of the disease, and a subsequent lack of
transparency regarding the management of the incursion.
A detailed time line prepared by Mr Cannon of the decision-making
process that followed the initial detection of myrtle rust on 23 April 2010
indicates that a decision that eradication was not feasible was reached
extremely quickly. The incursion was detected on 23 April 2010 and by 30 April
it had been deemed to be not technically feasible to eradicate by both the
Consultative Committee on Emergency Plant Pests and the Myrtle Rust National
Management Group. However, following requests by PHA and lobbying from other
organisations, the National Management Group agreed on 2 July 2010 to an
interim response plan, the aim of which was to suppress and ultimately
eradicate myrtle rust. By late December 2010, following further detections of
the rust, the Myrtle Rust National Management Group again decided that
eradication was not technically feasible.
The committee heard evidence that myrtle rust had been identified as a
serious biosecurity risk to Australia well before it was detected in 2010. Mr
Anthony Cannon recounted this history:
The risk of a eucalyptus rust incursion was formally
recognised by the Primary Industries Ministerial Council in 2006. This council
endorsed development of contingency planning for eucalyptus-guava rust,
including whole-of-government engagement across jurisdictions. However, there
had been considerable recognition and research prior to this time, with
international recognition of the potential of eucalypt-guava rust disease to
threaten eucalypts and other Myrtaceae species from the 1990s. CSIRO scientists
did considerable research in the early 2000s in Brazil, for example, and a lot
of that was collaborative research and involved South African scientists as
well as the Brazilian scientists and Australians.
Mr Cannon further stated that, although Puccinia sidii,
eucalyptus or guava rust, was listed as a key pest under the National
Plantation Timber Industry Biosecurity Plan in 2007 and the threat-specific
contingency plan for the nursery and garden industry developed in 2009, these
resources did not appear to be fully considered during the initial response to
While the nursery and garden industry threat-specific plan for guava or
eucalyptus rust included Uredo rangelii as one of 28 synonyms for Puccinia
psidii, the use of the name 'myrtle rust' caused some initial confusion:
There is little doubt that the use of the common name Myrtle
rust to distinguish Uredo rangellii as a distinct taxon from the taxon
described as P. psidii s.s. caused confusion. This was partly due to the
then limited host range of U. rangellii and therefore increased uncertainty
about its potential impact.
Mr Cannon commented on the initial decisions to abandon eradication
attempts as not technically feasible and then resume eradication attempts
several months later:
Six days after the myrtle rust was discovered in the
cut-flower nursery, my understanding is that a decision was made that it would
be impossible to eradicate. Because it was a rust there may be some reasons why
you might take that attitude, but to subsequently come back two months later
and then try to eradicate it means you have lost the momentum and probably lost
the opportunity to do something.
...there was already an infestation in native forest that was
unknown. That is the benefit of hindsight. But at the time there was a very
limited distribution known about and there may have been an opportunity to do
something about it.
Several witnesses stated that the issue of funding may have influenced
both the initial decision to abandon eradication attempts and the subsequent
decision to restart them. Dr William Roberts, Plant Biosecurity CRC, stated
that the early technical decision to abandon eradication efforts was not the
right decision. He went on to comment on the role of funding in the decision-making
I think the fundamental problem is that the people making
those decisions were clearly influenced by the looming costs of some of those
decisions and the fact that it is difficult to get funding through the state
governments for incursion or eradication action. You have to make a very strong
case to convince treasuries to release money for these sorts of projects. The
costs start ticking over the moment you say, 'We're going to contain and do
further survey work,' or, 'We are going to eradicate,' or whatever. In the face
of concerns about finding resources, consciously or not, there is always
pressure to say, 'Let's get out of this early and save money.' There is always
a choice to be made. Generally, when you find those things, with our current
fairly poor surveillance system, it is too late. You have to think about that.
I think we really need to take a more cautious approach and, every time we find
one, say, 'We will implement the best containment procedures we can and do a
further investigation of what the true situation is and then make the
On the subject of funding for the emergency response to myrtle rust, Mr Cannon
In the initial phase, like that first six days, where there
may be an eradication attempt, the funding is underwritten, as I understand it.
If they get to a stage where it is deemed not possible to eradicate, and it
becomes a management issue, then the funding, as I understand it, is all up in
the air. So it then becomes an issue of who picks up the can—whether it is
going to be the state or some Commonwealth share. I got the impression—and this
was brought up by the National Garden Industry Association in the other Senate
inquiry I was talking about—that the $2 million that was made available to the
New South Wales was at least a very large incentive to get things going again
from an eradication point of view.
With regard to surveillance and early detection, Dr Roberts, put to the
committee that the critical failure with regard to myrtle rust was the lack of
early detection, given the extreme difficulties of detecting such a disease at
...the critical failure in hindsight was it turned out that it
had probably been there for much longer than first thought. The critical failure
was the early detection problem. The disease might have come into Australia on
a passenger coming through the southern US or South America. The disease is now
in Hawaii and in principle you could have been transiting, say, Honolulu
International Airport and there might have been a spore-release event that got
sucked into the air conditioning. You could have been quite innocently coming
through and it could have been a one in a zillion chance that the spores were
on your clothes and ended up on a host and the disease started. They are the
sorts of odds we are talking about. When you think of what is coming across the
border, I do not see it as a failure of finding it at the border because in my
estimation it would have been impossible to find it at the borders. The spores
are microscopic—you cannot see them with the naked eye. There is a small
possibility that someone smuggled in an ornamental plant that had the disease
and it started from there, I suppose. There are lots of other possibilities,
but the critical failure was in early detection.
Mr Makinson of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation, also
emphasised that early detection could have led to more effective action in the
case of myrtle rust, although perhaps still not successful eradication, and
that greater involvement of the public in surveillance is a way to improve
knowledge about how invasive species are behaving:
About five months after the first detection, they found a big
patch up in Olney State Forest behind Wyong, and my understanding, from the
experts, is that they feel that that was so large at that stage that it had
probably been there for a couple of years, sitting out the end of the drought
and waiting for better conditions before it broke out down on the coast where
it was first detected. So I think the likelihood is that, even with a better
public network, we would have had to be very lucky to have succeeded in the
eradication attempt, but there would have been better tracking and there
certainly would have been better information now, after 4½ years, as to how it
is operating in terms of the effect on native plants.
Mr Andrew Maclean, Wet Tropics Management Authority, also noted that despite
the 'arrangements that are in place through various agreements between the
states and the Commonwealth, it does seem that it is possible for an organism
to become established unnoticed until it becomes almost too late to eradicate
Mr Maclean went on to argue that not enough was done to prevent the spread of
myrtle rust within Australia once it was detected:
We were concerned when decisions were made about the policy
and strategy in response to myrtle rust. I will use that as an example: the
decision was made: 'look, myrtle rust has escaped into the environment and can
no longer be eradicated'. That decision was made when the nearest infestation
of myrtle rust was well over 1,000 kilometres south of the Wet Tropics. We
believe that more could have been done, by way of internal quarantine and
internal controls over the movement of infectious plant material, which may
have slowed the spread of myrtle rust into the tropics. We would like to see
greater attention to that.
Mr Rodney Turner, General Manager, Risk Management, Plant Health
Australia, stated that, although myrtle rust is a serious pest, there was no
real prospect of eradicating it once it had been discovered and noted that huge
numbers of spores are produced and they are windborne. He also commented that
the myrtle rust had been there for some time and was detected in trees that were
10 to 15 metres high. He went on to state:
I think probably the issue was that that message was not
communicated effectively enough. The agencies did put into place emergency
measures. They did contain and they destroyed the material on the first nursery.
They were managing the trees that were on the border, and then they started the
trace forward, trace back processes which they do, and then they started
finding it in nurseries around the place. Then they found it in the natural
environment. Once it got to that stage it was then recognised that it was
probably impossible to eradicate—particularly when you think that the response
strategies that are available to you in a national environment are quite
different from the response strategies available to you in a production area. So
the nursery that was producing the flower material went in and destroyed all
the material and burnt it. You cannot go in and destroy great tracts of
national park, so those response strategies are quite different.
Mr Turner commented that the strategy worked and the Australian
government then funded PHA to undertake a transition to management program
which undertook research, 'essentially, about how you manage it, whether there
is resistant material, what is the host list for this material, and a lot of
that information is coming through now—through research papers, et cetera, and
material published on the 'transition to management' section on the PHA website'.
Mr Turner concluded:
But I think the question really is managing expectations.
Because it was a serious pest, people expected people just to eradicate it,
where the reality was that it was not eradicable.
The departments of agriculture and environment commented on measures
taken since the 2010 myrtle rust incursion. Their submission explained that,
following the 2010 incursion, the Department of Agriculture had sought expert
advice regarding the threat posed by myrtle rust to the environment and
industry and on this basis has maintained restrictions and conditions for entry
of products derived from myrtaceous species from countries where the fungus is
present and imposed a requirement that all myrtaceous hosts be held and grown
in post-entry quarantine for two years before release in order to allow time to
detect infected material. A prohibition on importing myrtaceous timber was
lifted in 2013 following a review of this pathway.
The submission also noted that the pathway of the 2010 incursion has not
been determined and that the not all possible entry pathways for exotic pathogens
such as myrtle rust can be effectively regulated:
...there may also be pathways of spread for some exotic
pathogens which are not possible or difficult to regulate. For example, it is
not practical to regulate spread by contamination on certain pathways such as
clothing, and the spread of pathogens can occur through natural means such as
movement of infective propagules through air currents.
Tramp ants—red imported fire ants and yellow crazy ants
The committee received submissions on, and discussed with witnesses, the
topic of tramp ant incursions. The term 'tramp ants' refers to a 'diverse group
of invasive ant species which have become established widely across the globe'.
As of 2012, the Department of the Environment listed the following
species of tramp ants as significant in Australia: red imported fire ant;
yellow crazy ant; African big-headed ant or coastal brown ant; Argentine ant;
Electric ant or little fire ant; and tropical fire ant. The environmental
impact of tramp ants can be severe:
Tramp ants can reduce species diversity, modify habitat
structure and alter ecosystem processes. They replace native small predators,
and some can repel larger predators. Insect-feeding mammals, birds, reptiles
and frogs decline as they have little to eat, are stung or eaten.
Tramp ants displace native ants and eat the eggs and larvae
of species such as butterflies. They disrupt invertebrate food webs and affect
plant pollination and seed dispersal. They damage plants by eating fruit and
seeds, tunnelling into stems and removing bark from seedlings, and can increase
The impact of yellow crazy ants on the ecology of Christmas Island, a
matter which is addressed further in chapter 6, clearly illustrates the severe
impact tramp ants can have:
Native land crabs, birds and reptiles are at risk from predation,
habitat alteration or reduced resources. The yellow crazy ant have displaced or
killed 15–20 million land crabs. This affects seedling recruitment, weed spread
and leaf litter breakdown in the forest. The resultant scale insect outbreaks
have also led to forest canopy dieback.
The Christmas Island Crazy Ant Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAP)
reported that modelling using climate data indicated that the potential
distribution of yellow crazy ants covers much of tropical Australia and that interceptions
of yellow crazy ants at Australian ports rapidly increased at Australian ports
between 1996 and 2002. Interception data beyond 2002 is not available.
CASAP also reported, with respect to data covering the period 1996 to
Sydney and Brisbane each accounted for 40% of all
interceptions of YCA into Australia. Darwin, Cairns and Townsville made up
another 10% of interceptions. We know that YCA is able to establish viable
populations at all of these ports except Sydney.
Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands account for almost 80%
of all interceptions (Fig. 7). Sri Lanka was also a significant contributor to
the number of interceptions. The actual quantities of imports from these
countries are not known, so it is not possible to estimate the 'per unit of
import' rate of interceptions.
Response to tramp ant incursions
Several elements of Australia's response to tramp ant incursions
received particular attention during the inquiry, including: the frequency of
tramp ant incursions and whether this points to weaknesses in biosecurity; the
effectiveness of eradication and control efforts; the extent to which existing
abatement plans have been implemented; and the adequacy of funding to control incursions.
The Invasive Species Council submitted that genetic studies have
established that red imported fire ants have arrived on four separate
occasions, and established twice in Brisbane and twice in Gladstone.
To this total must now be added the recently detected incursion at Port Botany
in Sydney, which genetic tests have shown to be unrelated to previous
incursions in Queensland.
The Invasive Species Council submitted that repeated incursions by red
imported fire ants, despite recognition of their serious impacts on society,
agriculture and the environment and a strong quarantine focus, demonstrate that
weaknesses still exist in the biosecurity regime.
A similar situation exists with yellow crazy ant incursions, which have
averaged two new outbreaks per year since 2000 and have been intercepted at
Australian ports on average eight times per year since 2008.
Surveillance measures and
Beyond weaknesses in preventing the entry of red imported fire ants,
witnesses stated that surveillance measures were not adequate, as evidenced by
the significant periods between incursion and detection in several cases. For
example, the Invasive Species Council stated:
The incursions also highlight inadequate surveillance in Australia
for high priority threats. The first incursions in Brisbane were not detected probably
until 10 years after arrival, and the 2014 detection at Yarwun for probably 3 years
Dr Lori Lach also stated that Australia was not doing enough to prevent
tramp ants from entering the country and cited as evidence recent red imported
fire ant incursions in Queensland and incursions of another species at Perth
There have been two recent incursions. One is another red
imported fire ant incursion in Queensland in an area where they had previously
been eradicated. They can pretty well pinpoint that the ants had been there for
three years before they were detected. They might be intercepting a lot, but
obviously some are getting through. These are just the ones we know about.
Another recent incursion is Lepisiota frauenfeldi at Perth Airport. It
was on airport grounds, which I believe are supposed to be surveyed annually.
Our best guess is that they had been there at least six years and up to 10.
Apparently, they were 'ankle deep'. These ants can get extremely abundant.
Those are two examples. We obviously do not know what is getting in that we
have not found yet.
Dr Lach also provided evidence on the incomplete implementation of the
threat abatement plan for tramp ants and on issues of funding and lack of
expertise that have hampered responses to incursions.
Red imported fire ants were listed as a key threatening process under
the EPBC Act in 2003, as were yellow crazy ants on Christmas Island in 2005.
Subsequently, a threat abatement plan was developed to address the following
high-priority tramp ant species: red imported fire ant; little fire
ant/electric ant; African big-headed ant; yellow crazy ant; and Argentine ant. The
goal of this threat abatement plan is to minimise the impact of invasive tramp
ants on biodiversity in Australia and its territories by protecting threatened
native species and ecological communities and preventing further species and
ecological communities from becoming threatened.
Beyond this overarching goal, the threat abatement plan contains six
science-based knowledge and expertise, incorporate Indigenous traditional ecological
knowledge, quantify impacts, and improve access to information for priority tramp
entry and spread of tramp ants by increasing diagnostic capacity, offshore surveillance,
inspection, treatment, and national and state and territory surveillance
for rapid response to tramp ant incursions and spread through risk assessment
of tramp ant species and pathways of introduction, and development of contingency
emergency response to tramp ant incursions by improving reporting and response
rates, and by developing tools for response and follow-up
stewardship by engaging, educating, and informing the Australian community
about the impacts of invasive tramp ants and effective means of response
Australian Government, state and territory government, and local management activities
in Australia and the region.
Both Dr Lach and the Invasive Species Council stated that, although this
plan was developed in 2006, parts of it remain unimplemented. The Invasive
Species Council stated that offshore surveillance, as identified in goal 2, had
not been improved, with the 2012 review of the abatement plan noting that there
had only been 'limited off-shore work' in this area.
Dr Lach stated that this abatement plan had not been properly
implemented and that, as a result, response efforts had been delayed, become
more expensive and ultimately been less successful than they might otherwise
First: the threat abatement plan for tramp ants, which went
into effect in June 2006, has not been fully implemented. Of the 15 action
items in the plan, five were very high priority, short-term actions. None of
these have been implemented to the intent of the plan. For example, there is
still no central repository of information on tramp ants; diagnostic capacity
and service are still limited; there are no comprehensive risk assessments for
any of the six ant species of concern identified in the plan; and specific and
context-dependent contingency plans have not been developed.
Second: had the plan been implemented, tramp ant abatement
programs would likely have been far more efficient and cost-effective. For
example, poor access to diagnostic services resulted in hundreds of extra
hectares being treated on Lord Howe Island for years due to inaccurate ant
identification. The extra baiting was expensive, increased risks to non-target
species and decreased staff morale. The lack of risk assessments and
contingency plans meant that when the yellow crazy ant was found on the
outskirts of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, political will and resources
to address the invasion fell far short of what was required. In the time that
it took the Wet Tropics Management Authority to obtain funding, the area of
infestation had nearly doubled from 300 to 571 hectares. It is currently 733
With regard to objectives 4 and 5 of the tramp ant abatement plan, the
committee notes the work undertaken by Dr Kirsti Abbott of the University of
New England to establish an Australian module of the School for Ants project,
which is a citizen science project that has operated in the US for four years.
The project aims to 'document the diversity, distribution and diet preferences
of ants around Australia' and 'could be used effectively as a citizen-driven
passive surveillance scheme independently of government, while contributing to
research on broader ecological aspects of diversity, distribution, diet
preferences and functional morphology of Australian ants.'
The Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) also reported that, while it
hopes its current $2 million yellow crazy ant eradication program will be
successful, delays in attaining funding have meant that the problem has grown
significantly. The WTMA explained that, because Queensland has determined that
yellow crazy ants cannot be eradicated, it has moved to a management phase of
its response under which land managers are each responsible for dealing with
the ants. The WTMA therefore applied for funding under the Commonwealth
Landcare program to manage the yellow crazy ant threat to the Wet Tropics World
There is an infestation against the boundary of the area and
slightly moving into it at Edmonton, in the southern suburbs of Cairns. We took
the view that it is important to tackle that infestation to protect the World
Heritage area. So we are not pretending to eradicate yellow crazy ant from
Queensland; we are trying to protect the World Heritage area from that
So an application was made; between making the application
and receiving the funding, sadly, a new infestation was detected at Kuranda,
just to the north of Cairns, and the area that we now need to treat has almost
doubled. We have the same amount of dollars that we initially applied for, but
the job has become much bigger.
Dr Lach also noted that the need to gain funding through natural
resource management programs such as Caring for Our Country or Landcare delays
interventions. She stated that even small delays in receiving funding for
eradication or management efforts can greatly affect the chances of success:
What we do have are really dedicated individuals in some of
these programs. The Caring for our Country program did fund Lord Howe Island,
Norfolk Island and the yellow crazy ants in the wet tropics, but that is an
annual funding mechanism that does not really fit with the urgency with which
we need to respond to these incursions. Also, I would point out, as I did in my
report, that both Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island had delays in actually
getting their funding once it was promised to them, which delayed treatment
substantially, which threw the program out right from the start.
The committee notes similar evidence provided during its recent inquiry
into the history, effectiveness, performance and future of the National
Landcare Program. For example, Tasmanian Land Conservancy submitted to that
inquiry that the Caring for our Country Program had been 'unable to deliver on
much-needed outcomes for threatened species recovery and threat abatement of
invasive pests through a lack of strategic goal setting, inadequate funding and
complicated delivery mechanisms at nation, state and local NRM regional levels.'
The Tasmanian Land Conservancy commented that 'realistic and adequate
funding for recovery and threat abatement plans is essential to ensure all
actions identified can be carried through to fruition.' It also emphasised the
importance of addressing environmental threats as quickly as possible:
For many threatened species time is an imperative and
priority conservation efforts should focus on securing and protecting existing
habitat to stabilize small or declining populations, building community and
cultural capacity to take ownership of this work into the future, and
strengthening biosecurity investment to reduce the potential for further
threats to take hold.
Finally, the WTMA also submitted that the transition from attempted
eradication to surveillance and management is made, and may be justifiable, at
a state-wide level, as occurred with yellow crazy ants in Queensland. However,
this governance arrangement does not include any mechanisms to continue efforts
to protect particular regional assets, such as the Wet Tropics World Heritage
Transition to management across the state can also mean that
local governments and landholders then bear the burden of costs and
responsibilities for local infestations. This devolution of responsibility and
costs does not offer any real incentive to succeed in managing biosecurity threats
and, in fact, may be sometimes be seen to offer a temptation not to make the
necessary and expensive efforts to succeed in preventing environmental impacts.
The devolution of responsibility also means that there is no coordinated regional
response beyond that now arranged by the Authority and individual landholders
will typically be frustrated in their eradication and control efforts due to
re-infestation from neighbouring properties.
The Government of South Australia expressed its support for the ongoing
eradication program for red imported fire ants in south east Queensland,
stating that it believes the incursion was of national significance and
therefore should be 'jointly funded by all jurisdictions until such time that
it is shown that it is not technically feasible to pursue this strategy.'
Should it become impossible to eradicate the red imported fire ant, it should
be the subject of a national containment program. The South Australian
Government cited containment costs in the USA of $6.4 billion for 2013 as
evidence of the costs that may be incurred if this incursion is not eradicated
The Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food was less
supportive of the continuation of the red fire ant eradication program in
south-east Queensland. It submitted that Western Australia has so far
contributed around $10 million to the eradication program in south-east
Queensland, but noted that after 13 years and $250 million of total
funding, the eradication program has not yet succeeded. The department's
WA has raised concerns about the on-going governance and
funding of the program and has not agreed to funding of the program in 2014/15,
but agreed to fund half the amount on an orderly wind down and its share for
any independent review of the governance and funding models of the program.
The Department of Food and Agriculture did, however, express support for
the response to the red imported fire ant incursions near Gladstone in
Queensland, stating that the Western Australian Government had agreed to
contribute approximately $180,000 over three years towards this response.
Industry also incurs costs due to red imported fire ant incursions. The
NGIA stated that its members were facing over $18 million per year in movement
protocol compliance costs, totalling over $210 million over the past 14 years.
CASAP noted that ant management in Australia is possibly most advanced
for the yellow crazy ant, given the number of localised eradications that have
been undertaken and the amount of research being undertaken to support
management strategies. However, CASAP also noted that the 'long-term prospects
of alleviating the spread of [yellow crazy ant] within Australia have been
significantly reduced by the cessation of [yellow crazy ant] management by
CASAP made the following two recommendations about future yellow crazy
ant management in Australia:
- Management of YCA [yellow crazy
ant] in Australia needs to be focused on preventing further incursions in
imported goods, coupled with eliminating or effectively containing the few
currently restricted populations established on the mainland to prevent further
- Management would be greatly
enhanced by the recognition that eradications largely take longer than typical
funding timeframes, and therefore funding for such strategic investment needs
to have better continuity when multiple grants are required.
Information supplied to the committee indicates that incursions by pests
and diseases that pose a threat to the environment have occurred regularly in
recent years. Plant pests and diseases and weeds appear to make up the majority
of detected incursions.
The committee notes that statistics on environmental biosecurity should
not be considered comprehensive as they only report incursions that have been
detected. Invasive organisms are often present in Australia for some period of
time prior to their detection.
Eradication programs have produced mixed results and, as illustrated by
the myrtle rust and tramp ant examples discussed above, response efforts appear
to commonly be hampered by the following problems: delays in initial detection;
delays in establishing reliable identification; delays in both attaining and
maintaining funding; and incomplete implementation of existing abatement plans.
The tramp ant and myrtle rust examples also clearly illustrate that the
nature of some invasive species is such that, once they become established in
the environment, they are very expensive to either eradicate or manage.
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