Risks and preparedness
This chapter discusses the increasing environmental biosecurity risks
posed to Australia by increases in trade and travel, including incursion
pathways that were identified as being particularly high risk or in need of better
regulation during the inquiry.
This chapter also discusses areas of biosecurity preparedness which
witnesses and submitters identified as requiring greater resources or better
resourcing of biosecurity operations;
environmental biosecurity research capacity;
taxonomic and identification capacity;
poor implementation of existing plans; and
a lack of research on impacts of climate change.
General biosecurity environment
The following statistics provided by the departments of agriculture and
the environment illustrate the extent of movements, including cargo, mail and
people, across the Australian border in 2013–14:
In 2013–14, the department:
cleared 17.7 million international
passengers, from whom 261,000 items were seized due to biosecurity concerns
handled 186.6 million
international mail items, of which 24,100 were seized due to biosecurity
assessed and granted entry to
17,460 vessels arriving from overseas
processed 23,500 import permit
applications, of which 18,700 permits were granted after assessment
assessed 440,000 commercial and
621,000 air freight consignments (under $1000 value) for import into Australia
inspected 45,600 sea containers
from high risk ports
monitored 6,060 live animals and
21,700 hatching eggs at government post entry quarantine facilities.
The departments further explained that the task of managing Australia's
biosecurity is expected to become more complex in the future due to climate
change and changes in the global distribution of pests. Furthermore, there are expected
to be significant increases in passenger, cargo and parcel movements across
Australia's borders and also within Australia:
The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development
predicts a 107 per cent increase in total passenger movements through
Australian airports by 2030, with significant annual growth projected from
countries posing a greater biosecurity risk; and a 129 per cent increase in Australia's
trade by 2025, with containerised trade almost doubling to 13.6 million units
by 2025. At the same time, there is expected to be significant growth in the
domestic movement of people and goods (Commonwealth of Australia, 2014). While
letter volumes through domestic and international mail centres are declining,
there is strong projected growth in parcels, driven primarily by online
shopping (Department of Communications, 2013).
These trends, combined with changing global demands,
increasing imports from a growing number of countries and new pathways,
population expansion and climate change mean that there will be increasing
complexity in Australia's biosecurity risk management.
The departments also submitted that the scale of the biosecurity task,
combined with the limited resources available to address it, means that
expenditure must be prioritised to the most high-risk areas. Within these
areas, expenditure should further be predominantly directed towards preventing
entry of species of biosecurity concern as this is the most cost-effective point
at which to deal with threats.
The departments' submission cites economic returns on investment in
prevention of 1:100. In comparison, economic returns on investment in eradication,
containment, and asset-based protection achieve returns of only 1:25, 1:5–10
and 1:1.5 respectively. As noted in chapter 3, there is no agreed methodology
for measuring environmental benefits in economic terms; however, in general,
investment in preventing incursions of environmental pests and diseases is
believed to be more cost effective than responding once they have arrived.
In general, submitters and witnesses agreed that it is prudent to
attempt to improve preventative measures and that, given the finite resources
available for biosecurity operations, a risk-based approach to identifying
pests and diseases, and their potential incursion pathways, is necessary.
However, a number of matters were raised as areas where this approach does not
appear to have been effectively implemented. Matters relating specifically to
marine, freshwater and island biosecurity are discussed in chapter 6.
Pathways and risk assessment
The departments of agriculture and the environment acknowledged that biosecurity
risk is inherent in the production, trade, and movement of goods, the movement
of people, and the natural migration of animal and bird species and climatic
and other natural environmental events that bring exotic pests and diseases to
Risk assessments are used to identify levels of risk posed by particular
pathways or organisms and how they can be managed. These risk assessments can
be reviewed and updated at any time when new information is available.
The Department of Agriculture is responsible under the Quarantine Act
for assessing the biosecurity risk associated with imports and the Department
of the Environment is responsible under the EPBC Act for assessing
environmental risks associated with the import of live specimens. Importing
live specimens such as 'animals and plants, seeds and biological control
agents' requires the agreement of both departments.
Currently, only animals and plants listed on the List of Specimens taken
to be Suitable for Live Import (live import list) are permitted to be imported.
This live import list includes any plant that can be imported under the Quarantine
Act, provided it is not listed as a CITES specimen under the EPBC Act. Animal
Species proposed for inclusion on this list are the subject of a risk
assessment, focused on their potential environmental impact, by the Department
of the Environment.
All new plants proposed to be introduced to Australia are assessed for
their potential to become weeds. This is done through the Australian weed risk
assessment system and plants that are found to have a high risk are prohibited.
Plants found to have a low risk are permitted into Australia with appropriate
conditions. This system is administered by the Department of Agriculture;
however, the Department of Environment has determined that this system also
adequately assesses the potential environmental risk of plants under the EPBC
Between 1997 and July 2014, 5,500 plant species have been assessed, of
which 69 per cent have been accepted for importation and 31 per cent rejected
on the grounds of their potential invasiveness.
The import risk analysis (IRA) process is currently the subject of a
review, consultation for which occurred between July and September 2014. This
review is examining: transparency and consultation during the IRA process; the
use of external scientific and economic expertise; and consideration of
regional differences in animal or plant health status during the IRA process.
The Department of Agriculture, in accordance with its move to a risk-based
biosecurity intervention strategy, has developed a risk return resource
allocation model to guide decision making:
The model works by calculating risks and costs of investment
for specified biosecurity control scenarios. Control scenarios can be
constructed to represent risk-based intervention strategies such as profiling,
targeting, rewards and penalties. It describes a comprehensive, non-overlapping
set of organisms of biosecurity concern. In this context, the term organism can
refer to an individual species of pest or disease (such as Asian gypsy moth) or
a group of species (such as weeds), with approximately 60 organisms currently
described in the model.
The model describes approximately 60 entry pathways by which
the organisms of biosecurity concern can enter Australia and over 130 pathway
specific biosecurity controls. Examples of controls include border inspection,
pre-export certification, stakeholder engagement, and surveillance. Switchable
settings in the model determine which controls are operating.
Risk is calculated as the combination of consequence and the
likelihood of entry, establishment and spread of organisms of biosecurity
concern across all pathways. Separate calculations of risk are generated for
the environment; primary industries (agriculture, fisheries and forestry); domesticated
and companion animals; infrastructure and produced goods; human health; and social
The submission notes that consequences in this model are expressed in
monetary terms for primary industry, while other categories, including
environment, use non-monetary scales.
Identification of pathways
The CSIRO submitted that 'Pathways are well known but have not been
quantified in terms of risk as a pathway or by type of organism even though the
tools for this are available today.' In addition, the CSIRO stated that 'Most
pathways are not consistently monitored for environmental biosecurity
detection, largely because many of the potential environmental invasive species
are poorly understood and the costs of monitoring are currently high.'
The CSIRO also noted that, as a signatory to the Biodiversity
Convention, Australia has agreed to Aichi Biodiversity Target 9, which reads:
By 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified
and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated, and measures
are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and
However, the CSIRO reported that prioritisation of species that are a
threat to the Australian environment has 'only been applied by some sectors and
some threat types. Moreover, no assessments have been made since 2009.'
The CSIRO undertook a prioritisation of marine pests in 2005 and advised
a prioritisation of potential environmental weeds exists under
the National Environmental Alert List, developed by the Australian Weeds
a prioritisation of invertebrates and pathogens with respect to
potential environmental impact was developed by the Environmental Biosecurity
Committee in 2009.
The Environmental Biosecurity Committee no longer exists and the list is
no longer publicly available; however, the CSIRO supplied an interim version of
the list, stating that it was no longer current and requires updating.
The Invasive Species Council was also critical of the relative neglect
of work on prioritising environmental biosecurity threats compared to what has
been achieved in other sectors:
There has been some identification and priority ranking of environmental
risks in some aspects of biosecurity – for example for exotic vertebrates (by the
Invasive Animals CRC) and marine invaders at a national level. In contrast, the
priority biosecurity threats for plant and animal industries have been comprehensively
identified through the work of Animal Health Australia and Plant Health Australia,
which are industry-government bodies majority‐funded
In this context, the Invasive Species Council emphasised the danger
posed by overseas plantations of Australian plants, such as eucalypts and
wattles, where plant disease can now become well adapted to Australian species
before arriving here.
Wild Matters, an environmental consultancy, submitted that considerable
work has been done by biosecurity agencies and research institutes at both
state and federal level to identify high risk organisms, but that often greater
attention was paid to agricultural threats.
With regard to pathways, Wild Matters stated that the Beale review,
IGAB, NEBRA and the National Invasive Plant Surveillance Framework all emphasise
the importance of identifying, prioritising and conducting surveillance of
high-risk pathways; however, there 'has been no implementation of these
recommendations or establishment of the foundation knowledge or activities
required to enable their implementation'.
Furthermore, Wild Matters argued that:
Nationally coordinated initiatives such [as] the National
Weed Spread Prevention Initiative (NWSPI) and the Weeds of National
Significance (WoNS) program have demonstrated the willingness of managers to adopt
a pathway-based approach to identifying risk. However the discontinuation of
these nationally coordinated programs has resulted in lost capacity to
implement agreed/supported strategies and plans.
The Farm Tree & Landcare Association submitted that the pace at
which priority weed lists, such as the list developed under the WONS program,
are updated is not matching the pace at which new weeds are emerging and
becoming established. As funding and enforcement actions are often linked to
such priority lists, it can be difficult to obtain support to control emerging
weeds. This situation makes it difficult to address weeds at the most
cost-effective time—that is, when they first emerge.
Identification of high-risk species
The committee questioned the Department of Agriculture as to whether it
maintained a current list of species that are high-priority threats to the
environment. Ms Mellor responded:
There is the weeds list and then, from my perspective, in
plant and animal health there are certain things that we worry about that could
get here and affect the environment, way of life or production. To that end,
things like didymo are high in our mind—or rock snot, and I do not like that in
the Hansard but that is what it is. There are things that are high in
our mind—Mexican feather grass, for example. There is probably, say, a 'top six
on the Richter scale' that biosecurity scientists worry about and some of them
are particularly invasive to the environment.
The Department of Agriculture provided the following list on notice:
Six invasive species that are of high concern to the
department and are considered as threats to the environment include; Didymosphenia
geminate (didymo), Phytophthora cinnamomi, (root rot) Mytilopsis
sallei (black striped mussel), Pseudogymnoascus destructans (causes
white nose syndrome in bats), tramp ants and the Duttaphrynus melanostictus
(Asian black spined toad).
Specific pathways of concern
Several pathways and industries were highlighted during the inquiry as raising
particular concerns, including: mail, particularly as it relates to internet
sales; cargo; the horticulture industry; and the live animal trade. These
matters are discussed in turn below.
The role of the ornamental fish trade in biosecurity breaches was also
raised during the inquiry; however, this topic is discussed in the following
As noted above, although letter volumes are dropping for both domestic
and international mail, parcel volumes are projected to grow strongly, largely
due to online shopping.
The committee discussed with the Department of Agriculture the level of
biosecurity risk posed by the mail pathway and how it manages that risk.
Ms Mellor, Deputy Secretary, commented that the mail pathway is 'not the
highest risk pathway'. International mail enters Australia from four main
gateways that are run by Australia Post. Australia Post, the department and the
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service undertake a screening process
of mail. About 185-plus million international mail items come into Australia
each year with about 120 million articles being letters. The department
indicated that letters generally do not pose a high risk but nevertheless,
sampling of letters is undertaken.
Of the 70 million parcels or packages arriving each year, over 50 per
cent are screened. Screening also covers parcels coming into Australia through
courier services. Ms Mellor noted that seizures are made and the information is
recorded and used to assist with the nature of what is coming into the country.
While many parcels are of no concern, for example, arrangements are in place to
screen out books, Ms Mellor stated 'if they are manufactured in a certain
way and come from companies like Amazon as the managing company, we sample, but
we generally can tell'. However, Ms Mellor went on to note that 'the nature of
what is coming through can be quite risky: seeds, grains, meat products, animal
products et cetera'.
In conclusion, Ms Mellor stated:
In context, 70 million sounds like not a lot compared to
185-plus million, but it is a lot and it is a very difficult environment in
which to work. What we know about the mail pathway is that more than 99 per
cent of mail that comes through that pathway is compliant with quarantine
regulation. So we are looking for less than one per cent in that total pathway,
mostly in parcels.
Figures provided in the departments' submission on the number of identifications
of exotic pests and disease by mode of arrival also appear to indicate that
mail poses less of a risk when compared with air and sea pathways. For example,
in 2013 mail accounted for only 750 identifications of exotic pests and diseases
out of a total of 18,393. Mail accounted for a similar proportion of total
identifications in the years 2009 to 2010.
Although mail appears to present comparatively low levels of biosecurity
risk, the committee received evidence from the Invasive Species Council
concerning the ease with which prohibited plants and seeds can be ordered
online and enter the country through the mail system.
To illustrate this problem, the Invasive Species Council documented the
process it followed to buy, via eBay, and successfully import into Australia
Mexican feather grass, sleepy grass and Kochia scoparia seeds. These packages
of seeds were obtained from the United States, Hong Kong and China
In its submission, eBay stated that it has a plants and seeds policy,
developed with the Department of Agriculture, and that buyers are directed to
this policy when searching for plants and seeds:
eBay takes an educative approach to biosecurity within the
marketplace. eBay has a plants and seeds policy which was developed in
conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, and incorporating warnings
which are presented to eBay users looking for products within related categories
and in response to search keywords related to plants and seeds.
The Invasive Species Council stated in evidence that no warning
regarding the illegality of importing these plants was displayed when it
purchased them. Furthermore, the Invasive Species Council stated that it had
submitted a complaint regarding the advertising and sale of prohibited plants
and seeds to eBay and received no response, nor were the plants and seeds in
question removed from the website:
There is no warning to say this is illegal. eBay in their
evidence said that the controls are there. Before I bought it, I complained to
eBay saying, 'This is illegal.' I lodged a formal thing and there has been no
action. The ACT government have been telling me they have been trying to stop
the Mexican feather grass from being sold on eBay since June. They have raised
it with the national weed committee. This is the ACT government weeds officer.
It is still on sale today and it is the same supplier. They have already sold
the Kochia, and they tell you how many they have sold. They have sold a few
The Invasive Species Council also noted that one of the seed packages
had passed through the mail system unhindered despite the customs declarations
stating that it contained Kochia scoparia seeds.
NGIA also acknowledged in evidence that online shopping presents a
I see comment in one of the submissions that these plants are
available commercially in Australia. Yes, they are, on eBay, or they can be
imported from overseas. That is not an issue that we can control; that is an
issue of people buying in seeds or plants that come through in the mail system,
to say that they particularly might like to see, say, serrated tussock or
Mexican tussock grass, saying, 'Well, it's freely available in the US. It's
available as seed.' They can bring it in and put it here.
The committee sought further information from eBay regarding the
presentation of its plants and seeds policy and how effectively it is displayed
to customers before they purchase species that are prohibited for importation
to Australia. The committee did not receive a response from eBay to these
In response to a question on notice regarding how it deals with breaches
of Australia's quarantine requirements through online trade, the Department of
Agriculture stated that it is attempting to address this problem through the
The department has also been working with internet seed
suppliers to deal with online purchasing from overseas which may be in breach
of Australia's quarantine requirements. For instance, eBay Australia has since
updated its plants and seeds selling policy, which enables the department to
report breaches of the policy to eBay and for that entity to then take action
against the international seller. The site also incorporates warnings which are
presented to eBay users intending to purchase certain plants and seeds.
Investigations are also underway on the volumes and types of seeds being
purchased by Australian eBay users to identify key entities for education and
The department has written to other international seed
suppliers (eg. Amazon and Chinese based on-line shopping sites such as
Aliexpress and CNDirect). To date, over 120 suppliers have been provided with
information on Australia's plant and seed import requirements.
The department is also:
working with the Australian
Customs and Border Protection Service and Australia Post to improve mail
promoting the benefits of
biosecurity through programs such as Border Security, fact sheets and web
content, in-language radio interviews, and advertising through social media—this
increases public awareness and for the requirements to be communicated back to
family and friends overseas.
conducting education campaigns
that target specific seasonal and cultural events.
The department also indicated that as part of an educational exercise,
in 2013 it targeted 5165 Australians who had received non-permitted plant or
seed imports through the international mail. These people were sent a brochure informing
them of Australia's biosecurity import requirements with links back to relevant
pages of the department's website. A result of this exercise, 345 of the
recipients sought additional information from the website and a further 41
people made contact with the department directly by phone or email.
The risk of cargo as a pathway was noted in evidence. Mr Richard
Stoklosa, for example, noted that the Asian House Gecko is a very invasive
species which likes to live on wharves and therefore can enter vessels and move
around the world.
The Department of Agriculture stated that cargo on vessels presents a
greater biosecurity risk to Australia than mail, but that the greater level of
pre-arrival information gathered on cargo and vessels assists in dealing with
this. The department stated that the over two million containers that come in a
year are 'largely compliant' and are 'a little bit easier to manage than mail
because we get evidence of what is coming pre-arrival, so we can make decisions
about the tools we need to manage that'.
However, vessels themselves pose a more difficult problem:
Depending on their speed, location and when they are loaded,
the loading process itself can attract pests. Over in New Zealand, which has
burnt pine longicorn beetles, which are quite terrible, loading at night for
travel to Australia is a bad thing because the beetles at certain times of the
year are attracted to the lights. In my own experience I have had to ask a
vessel master to turn around and go back because there have been a lot of
beetles they have not been able to manage. The vessel masters themselves are
very experienced in Australia's quarantine laws. Bees, depending on the time of
the year, the speed of the vessel and whether it is stopping at multiple ports
et cetera, can be an issue. Marine pests can be an issue. We do a lot of work
with the shipping sector on biofouling processes. We know when they have been
repainted, when they have been dry-docked and when they have been cleaned; we
gather information about that. The vessels are tricky because they are tracked themselves.
The departments of agriculture and the environment also highlighted the 'Country
Action List' in their submission as an example of how they respond to cargo as
an incursion pathway:
The Country Action List is an example of how the Department of
Agriculture targets a range of high risk pests and other contaminants (such as
soil) on imported sea containers and noncontainerised (breakbulk) cargo at the
border. This initiative is part of a joint programme with New Zealand to manage
cargo arriving from ports at risk of introducing pests such as the giant African
snail, Asian black-spined toad, exotic bees and ants. All containers and break
bulk from countries on the action list require full six sided inspection of
external surfaces and the internal surfaces of empty containers, when
discharged at Australian ports.
The effectiveness of Australia's approach to managing the biosecurity
risks posed by cargo was questioned by several submitters. In particular, the
recent history of tramp ant incursions, which travel in cargo, was cited as
evidence that this pathway requires further attention.
For example, the Invasive Species Council submission highlighted the
repeated incursions made by red imported fire ants at cargo ports and also
discussed incursions and interceptions of yellow crazy ants:
The large number of YCA [yellow crazy ant] interceptions and incursions
show that quarantine processes have major gaps for ants. The average of 8 interceptions
a year (in the past 5 years) and average of 2 outbreaks detected a year (since 2001)
are likely to represent only a proportion of YCAs arriving in Australia. The 2006
threat abatement plan notes that the 'system of detecting tramp ants at the border
relies on external inspection of all cargo', which will 'detect a proportion of
ant contamination, and relies on the presence of actively foraging ants on the container
exterior'. With no dedicated surveillance programs for timber imports, there are
likely to be several undetected incursions each year, and there would have been
many incursions that failed to establish.
As discussed in the previous chapter, both the Invasive Species Council
and Dr Lach stated that important elements of the 2006 tramp ant threat
abatement plan have not been effectively implemented, including
work on strengthening offshore surveillance.
The role of the horticulture industry in environmental biosecurity was
raised in relation to both the importation of potentially invasive species and
their subsequent spread within Australia. The New South Wales Natural Resources
Commission (NRC) stated in its submission:
The NRC's review of NSW weed management found that several of
these pathways are currently poorly monitored and controlled – for example, the
nursery industry, aquarium industry, fodder distribution, transport corridors,
and livestock movement.
The NRC also stated:
The commercial plant trade is a particular concern for
introduction of environmental weeds.
National protocols for certifying
nurseries and tracking plant sales should be adopted to ensure that incursions
can be easily traced and quickly eradicated.
The NRC further stated in evidence:
If you look at the track record, the majority of escapes of
plants have come through the nursery system. However you look at it, that
industry has contributed to more escapes of weeds and potential weeds than any
The committee raised the NRC's assessment with the NGIA, which responded
by making a distinction between large commercial nurseries, which it believes
are well regulated, and smaller operations, which it believes do pose a
But it is very easy to call a whole range of things
'nurseries'. It is whether that is their principal business or if someone has
just grown some plants and is having a day trade at the markets. Yes, that is
uncontrolled. That is very uncontrolled, even to the point of selling poisonous
plants. There is no registration required; anyone who has green fingers can
grow some plants and take them to their local boot sale and start selling them.
That is a concern to us. But we have tried to get registration and we get
pushed back from different levels. It is seen as more red tape.
The Invasive Species Council highlighted the problem of incorrect
labelling in the nursery industry as a means by which weeds can enter Australia.
It submitted that, although Mexican feathergrass is a prohibited import, it has
repeatedly been sold by Australian nurseries under incorrect labels:
Pathways: Imported as a nursery plant under incorrect or
outdated names. In 2009 a nursery imported Mexican feathergrass seeds by incorrectly
labelling them as Stipa lessingiana, which is a permitted import. Mexican
feathergrass is not. A similar violation had occurred in 1996 when a Victorian nursery
imported the seeds by labelling with an earlier valid scientific name, Stipa
tenuissima. Mexican feathergrass has also been sold by a Sydney nursery as a
native grass 'elegant spear Austrostipa elegantissima', perhaps as a result
of another improper importation. In 2007-2008, it was sold widely in Queensland
after being labelled as Stipa capillata and Stipa capriccio by an
The NRC stated that the improvement and standardisation of labelling and
identification of weeds across the nursery industry had the support of the
nursery industry in New South Wales:
...the research shows that two-thirds—nearly 70 per cent—of
weed incursions are garden escapees. There are not any national standards for
the identification of weeds. In our conversations with the New South Wales
nursery association, they were very supportive of there being industry-led
standardisation. We had very productive conversations with them and they were
supportive of an industry-wide approach to have a permitted list, if it were
industry led and government were providing the initial resources to help them
to implement standard labelling of their products for sale. This is an area
which would be achievable if the Commonwealth sat down with the industry and
had further discussions about what obvious steps they could take, because we
found a very receptive area at the industry level.
The NRC stated that it had considered ways to improve the regulation of
plant species that are sold through the nursery industry and had concluded that
the introduction of permitted lists, rather than the current prohibited lists,
would be a significant improvement:
On the issue of regulation, we gave a long thought to what
should happen—whether we should maintain prohibited list or permitted lists—and
we came down quite strongly in favour of permitted lists. The principal reason
for going for permitted lists is that, for something to get onto the list,
someone has to think about the characteristics of the plant and about its
potential to acclimatise to Australia and naturalise itself. With a prohibited
list, generally a problem has to emerge and then you say, 'We have to stop
that'—or else it has to be recognised as a problem overseas. We made that
recommendation. It was not accepted by the New South Wales government, but it
is still our firm view that in the nursery trade we should have permitted
The only state that currently operates a permitted list instead of a
prohibited list is Western Australia. The NRC stated that this was partly
because the incursion pathways are more easily controlled due to the
geographical isolation of Western Australia. However, it argued that a
harmonised approach could be developed across the eastern seaboard states.
Mr Prince, Chief Executive Officer of the NGIA, stated that he did not
believe any recent incursions could be attributed to deliberate introduction by
members of the horticulture industry. He argued that recent incursions were
mostly the result of accidental introductions by members of the general
population or of smuggling of material across the border.
Mr Prince also informed the committee that the horticulture industry has
invested in the development of a risk management tool to assess the potential
invasiveness of species that members of the industry may be considering
importing. The NGIA has also developed the federally-funded Grow Me Instead campaign,
which involves the publication guides for each state and territory identifying
invasive urban plants and suggesting superior alternatives. The NGIA has also
conducted surveys of retail centres to ensure that known invasive species are
not being sold to the public.
As noted in the discussion of the mail pathway above, the NGIA believes
that, despite the initiatives mentioned above, invasive plant species remain
commercially available in Australia via online retailers. However, the
horticulture industry in Australia is not in a position to address this
Live animal trade
In 2014, the Vertebrate Pests Committee, which was recently combined
with the Australian Weeds Committee to form the Invasive Pests Committee,
developed updated guidelines for the import, movement and keeping of non-indigenous
vertebrates in Australia.
The Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) participated in developing these
guidelines and stated in evidence that this process highlighted several issues
regarding the importation of live animals.
The ZAA commented that the regulation of live importation differed
significantly depending on the nature of the organisations involved. It
reported that the zoo industry is 'heavily regulated' and works within a
'significant legislative framework', whereas the private aviculture and ornamental
wildlife industries are less strictly regulated.
The ZAA described further research it undertook following this review
process regarding the biosecurity threat posed by the zoo industry. This
research demonstrated that zoos pose only a limited risk and that exotic birds
are the most likely category of animals to escape and not be recaptured.
With regard to the threat posed by exotic birds, the ZAA noted that zoos
are currently unable to import any exotic birds, but an exotic bird can be
imported if it is a pet. Dr Carolyn Hogg, ZAA, commented that the 'current
exotic birds in our collections all come from seizures that have occurred at
the border of Australia'. Dr Hogg went on to state there is there is limited
understanding of the current status of the movement of illegally imported
individuals and that the private aviculture and ornamental wildlife industries
are largely unregulated in Australia. However, work is being undertaken at the
University of Adelaide to assess the establishment risk of exotic vertebrate
species from backyard and illegal keeping. This has a potential business impact
for the zoo industry in the long term, particularly if there is an incursion of
a new disease.
Dr Hogg concluded:
It is our opinion that Australia is at risk by not funding
work that is designed to identify potential pathways of new exotic species into
our country and we are at considerable and unknown risk from private and
illegal keeping. The Australian government and the beneficiaries of all those
who are keeping exotic wildlife should be funding research opportunities into
pathways of unregulated trade.
The ZAA further stated that the current lack of knowledge on the size
and nature of the illegal importations of live animals into Australia could be
partially addressed by the development of a national database of seized
wildlife to which all agencies contribute. Dr Hogg stated:
I was very surprised to learn during that time that actually
the zoo industry were able to supply the largest and most comprehensive
database in the country with regard to seized wildlife from one location.
As a result, the primary concern of our industry is the lack
of continuity across all state and government agencies, including the federal
government, with regard to the documentation of incursions. We strongly believe
that there should be a fully funded national database which all agencies are
required to contribute to. We need this in order to determine future potential pathways
of incursions into our country.
The Invasive Species Council provided the example of the pigeon
paromyxovirus. It submitted that, although the precise incursion pathway is unknown,
the pigeon paromyxovirus may have entered Australia through pigeon smuggling.
This disease was first detected in Australia in August 2011 and has the
potential to spread to native bird populations.
Dr Andrew Peters of Charles Sturt University also raised the pigeon
paromyxovirus incursion as an example of failings in Australia's biosecurity
system. He submitted that in this case there was a failure to:
prevent the incursion of the virus through the illegal movement
of birds into Australia;
recognise the threat posed by the virus to domestic pigeons and
more specifically to native pigeons and doves;
commit resources to eradication when this is still achievable;
undertake research work to identify potential risks; and
develop a strategy to identify and manage risks posed by the
virus to Australia's environment.
The Australian Museum submitted that it had been involved with more than
100 cases of illegal wildlife importation from a broad range of species in the
past five years. On this basis, it considered that trafficking of wildlife presents
a risk of introducing new pests and diseases to Australia:
The Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics at the Australian
Museum has handled more than 100 cases involving illegal wildlife over the past
5 years...These cases span a broad diversity of species (including birds,
reptiles, mammals, molluscs, and fish). With respect to quarantine, there is
high risk that these illegal imports could carry diseases or additional pests/parasites
(in the case of live animals). On this basis, illegal trafficking should be acknowledged
as a potentially significant pathway for entry of exotic pests and diseases
Departmental resourcing and risk-based inspection system
The CPSU provided the committee with the results of a survey of its
members working in the Department of Agriculture. The CPSU identified the
following key concerns about the recent administration of biosecurity
operations: the risk-based intervention system; budget cuts and staffing
Two thirds (65.6%) of CPSU members surveyed said that
Australia's biosecurity arrangements have become worse or significantly worse
over the past decade due to declining standards and increasing risks. Members
were asked what changes had caused biosecurity arrangements to decline. The
most common responses were budget cuts (90%), the policy of risk-based
intervention (79.9%) and staffing numbers (77.7%). Members were concerned that
decisions about risk-based intervention have been influenced by budget cuts, creating
greater risks to Australia's biosecurity.
The CPSU explained that its members believed that decisions to inspect
cargo or mail, or screen passengers, are often being made on the basis of
whether resources are available to undertake that work, rather than on the
basis of biosecurity risks:
Some examples are that mail from a certain country gets
screened in a certain port because the risk says it should be screened but in
another port does not get screened, because the resources are not available.
That is mail. People who fit a risk profile, normally arriving from a flight from
certain countries, are being released without intervention or screening
depending upon the number of staff that are at work that day.
The CPSU further stated that the theory underpinning the risk-based
intervention policy is supported by members, but that they feel it has not been
When the risk based system was introduced, there was strong
support amongst the workforce for it. It was based on using the intelligence
gathered to identify the risks rather than just doing everything—so it is more
efficient although there is still a risk—but it was to be complemented with an
increased focus on audits and surveillance. It is the view of our members that
the risk based approach has been introduced that neatly lines up with having
less money to do it anyway, but that the audit and surveillance that was
supposed to go with it has not lived up to what was promised. Whether that is
because of a lack of resources or there has been a change in approach, our
members do not know. It was supposed to be that risk based intervention would
mean less inspections—efficiency based on intelligence—and more audits and
surveillance to ensure that the actual risk that had been assessed was the
case. The frustration has been in doing fewer inspections in a particular
profile or area but not an increase in audit or surveillance.
With regard to staffing numbers, the CPSU reported that the most recent
federal budget projected a reduction in full-time equivalent staffing levels of
232 and that two rounds of voluntary redundancies had recently been completed.
Further concerns about agency staffing levels affecting the performance
of Australia's biosecurity system were expressed by the Australasian Wildlife
Management Society, which submitted that:
AWMS' main concern about the management of new harmful
incursions is that agencies tend to stop at the stage of developing a strategy
or even enacting legislation, and then announce their preparation publicly.
However, it usually stops there. Strategies, policies and acts will not in
themselves prevent new incursions. They provide the framework. To be effective management
requires adequate trained staff with the necessary support and well-developed and
evaluated processes to implement them.
The Department of Agriculture provided details of how biosecurity
operations are funded partly by appropriations and partly by cost recovery from
industry. Scientific work, biosecurity policy and legislation advice to
government, mail and airport clearance, work on intergovernmental agreements
and emergency responses are all funded by government appropriation. However,
remaining operations, which make up between 60 and 70 per cent of departmental
operations are funded by importers and exporters. Staffing levels in these two
areas are therefore affected differently by reductions in government funding.
The Department of Agriculture also provided information on how recent
changes to its cost recovery arrangements have allowed it to improve its
operations. In 2014 the department raised its fees, which had not been
increased for some time. Legislation was also passed in March 2014 which
allowed the department to use funds generated through cost recovery to improve
its work processes and technology. Under previous arrangements, fees generated
by a particular activity could only be used to fund that activity.
The Department of Agriculture also provided more detail on recent
voluntary redundancy rounds. It stated that in fact there had been one
voluntary redundancy round that had extended over two financial years:
The VR number we had for 2013–14 for the whole department was
365—that is full-time equivalents. For 2014–15, up until 31 August, there were
another 82. For 2013–14, 255 of the FTEs were from the regions and 110 were
from Canberra. For up until 31 August for 2014–15, 30 were regionally based
FTEs and 52 were Canberra based FTEs.
The Department of Agriculture nominated animal and plant risk assessment
work and funding and staffing provided under the EPPRD, the EADRA and the NEBRA
as specifically related to environmental biosecurity, all of which is supported
by appropriation rather than cost recovery.
The Department of Agriculture informed the committee that it was not
possible to state how much of the funding provided by the Commonwealth
Government under these agreements could be ascribed specifically to
environmental biosecurity as opposed to agricultural biosecurity:
While developed on a sectoral basis, the animal and plant
agreements do not distinguish between the agricultural or environmental impact
of a particular pest or disease. The animal and plant cost-sharing agreements
provide for affected industry signatories that benefit from an eradication
response to share the costs and decision making responsibility for that
These arrangements apply where a production industry sector
benefits from a response, not because the impacts of a specific pest or disease
are exclusively agricultural.
The department was, however, able to provide the following summary of
action on invasive species with an environmental impact taken since 2001:
Since 2001, twenty two eradication responses have been
conducted at a cost of $310 million. Of these nine were in response to an
invasive species with either a known or potential likelihood to harm the
environment. These include the four tropical weeds, red imported fire ants (South
East Queensland and Yarwun, Queensland), browsing ants, electric ants, Siam
weed, Asian honeybees, citrus canker and Myrtle rust responses.
The suggestion made by the CPSU that the risk-based intervention system is
being compromised by a lack of staff was contested by Ms Mellor of the
Department of Agriculture. She asserted that the department has national processes
and rules governing how staff manage risks at the border and that additional
staff are deployed where workload pressures are identified.
The committee suggested to the Department of Agriculture that reduced
staffing levels would inevitably lead to situations where pressure is placed on
front‑line staff to cut corners rather than delay the movement of
passengers or cargo for long periods; however, the department stated that it
expects staff to follow procedures and that options are available for speeding
up processing without compromising on risk management:
Our view would be, though, that if the staffing ratio to the
movement of passengers is out of kilter, for example, that you do not cut
corners: you actually do your job. That can become difficult, I know, for
staff. I have been in airports at times when that has happened. There are huge
queues, but we still have to do our job.
We have a number of ways to manage risk in the airports—not
everybody goes through an officer. A large proportion of passengers are
compliant. Return travellers are one thing—they all know the rules—but a large
proportion of people declare that they have nothing, and our sampling shows
that. We are confident with the honesty in the declarations. For those we have
to see, we use a number of channels. We use X-ray, as you know. We also use
bench search and detector dogs. We use them according to the risk. The risk is
determined by where they have come from and the sorts of things they have
declared. Our staff can pick a bag that is full of pomegranates even though
nothing is declared. They are highly experienced. It is not our contention that
they should cut corners and they are not instructed to do so.
Northern Australia Quarantine
In the context of resourcing, the committee notes that the departments
of agriculture and environment advised that the Northern Australia Quarantine
Strategy (NAQS) has been in place since 1989. The strategy is focused on early
detection of exotic pests, diseases and weeds along Australia's northern
coastline, from Cairns to Broome and including the Torres Strait. The
department advised that target lists are used to prioritise surveillance
efforts, and those target species are reviewed annually.
Several submitters and witnesses were very concerned about reductions in
Commonwealth biosecurity staffing, particularly in Northern Australia. The
committee notes that the final report of the recent Joint Select Committee on
Northern Australia recommended that the number of biosecurity officers be
significantly increased in Northern Australia to increase the chances of early
detection of pest and disease incursions, and reduce the time taken to identify
specific pests and diseases and put in place remedial action.
The Invasive Species Council submitted that environmental NGOs consider
NAQS to be an 'an exemplary model for detection of new incursions and community
education'; however, it suggested that the funding for NAQS 'has declined' and
is increasingly focused on agricultural priorities. The council stated:
...we understand that what was a very lean operation has suffered
recent budget cuts involving the loss of 20% of its staff over the past two years,
ending a permanent presence in many remote communities such as in the Torres Strait
islands, where quarantine officers have been stationed for the last 20 years. We
question whether the program has sufficient funding to achieve its purposes, particularly
since the recent budget cuts.
The CPSU submission included a comment from one of its members regarding
the effect of staff losses in northern Australia:
Recent staff cuts through VR process and actively recruiting
staff to take redundancies across Northern Australia, especially in the Torres
Strait Islands has left a great gaping hole in our northern Biosecurity
defences. It is only a matter of time before there will be another incursion
into Australia through this route.
The departments of agriculture and the environment submission
highlighted NAQS as an example of its surveillance activities. It did not,
however, comment on resourcing for the program.
Key threatening processes and
threat abatement plans
The departments of agriculture and the environment submitted that the
EPBC Act 'provides a framework for the management of invasive species by
providing for the listing of key threatening processes and the development of
threat abatement and recovery plans'.
However, some submitters and witnesses were highly critical of these processes,
particularly the lack of implementation of threat abatement and recovery plans.
For example, Dr Burbidge told the committee that:
Most of the threat abatement plans applying to invasive
species and islands are documents sitting on a shelf that are not particularly
well used. For example, there is a threat abatement plan for tramp ants. It
covers a large number of species of ants which have wandered around the world,
many of which have become established in Australia. They have arrived in
equipment, food and plants that have been brought into Australia. That threat
abatement plan has lot of good proposals in it but, by and large, nothing has
As discussed in chapter 4, Dr Lach also stated in evidence that the
tramp ant abatement plan contained good proposals but had not been effectively
The Invasive Species Council expressed concern at the recent listing of
'novel biota' as a key threatening process under the EPBC Act. They submitted
that this 'effectively shuts down the capacity to use the national threat
abatement process to assist with addressing invasive species problems not
In the opinion of the Invasive Species Council, the listing of novel biota in
general as a key threatening process means that specific invasive species that
would otherwise qualify as key threatening processes are no longer being listed
because they are considered to be already covered by the general listing.
In response to questioning on this issue, Mr Oxley from the Department
of the Environment told the committee that although the department has
responsibility for the 'development, review and to some extent, the
implementation of threat abatement plans':
...we have limited capability and resources allocated to the
Department of the Environment for implementation of threat abatement
plans...there is no substantive program of investment in the implementation of
threat abatement plans at the Commonwealth level...we have limited resources and
we direct it to dealing with the threats of highest importance. The primary
area of importance of us at the moment is the development of the curiosity bait
to deal with feral cats.
Mr Oxley noted that the department does work with other parties to try
to facilitate the implementation of threat abatement plans, and also that one
of the roles of the Threatened Species Commissioner is to work with a range of
stakeholders to try to 'leverage more implementation action' in relation to the
Scientific expertise and research capacity
Many submitters and witnesses emphasised the need to provide greater
levels of support to scientists and experts working in fields relevant to
environmental biosecurity. Evidence presented to the committee suggests the
availability and effective utilisation of scientific expertise is central to
maintaining Australia's environmental biosecurity preparedness. The main
concerns regarding scientific expertise and research capacity raised during the
inquiry are discussed below.
The committee heard evidence from the Plant Biosecurity CRC and the
Invasive Animals CRC that the provision of funding through competitive grants
processes means that it is very difficult to maintain continuity of research
projects and to plan long-term projects. Both CRCs stated that they had not
been consulted about plans announced by the Minister for Industry to roll CRCs
into proposed new industry growth centres.
Mr Andreas Glanznig of the Invasive Animals CRC emphasised that the lack
of permanent funding for research in this area does not accord with the
strategic importance of biosecurity:
One of the key points that I would make in terms of
institutional arrangements is that, as a CRC, we are ad hoc, and we are
time-bound. We are also, I suppose, very fortunate that both we and the Plant
Biosecurity CRC put in very strong bids, but it was a very competitive round.
We may not have got up, and what would that have meant for incursions and
innovation capability? There is a real strategic risk, if you are looking at it
from a national point of view. And that does beg the question about what
permanent arrangements can be put in place to ensure ongoing innovation, and
also nationally-coordinated surveillance and eradication efforts.
This position was supported by Dr William Roberts of the Plant
...the Plant Biosecurity CRC folds, in a formal sense, in the
middle of 2018. So we are about 2½ years into a six-year program. When it
folds—obviously we are looking at what the future beyond mid-2018 is, but there
is absolutely no certainty. The climate does not look very favourable for
research at the moment in Australia, just generally. It has declined for many
years, over many different administrations, I might say. And there is no really
long-term commitment that we can see anywhere in this area. It is very ad hoc.
Several submitters stated that the discontinuation of the Weeds CRC had
substantially reduced the research focus on environmental weeds. The Council of
Australasian Weed Societies stated:
That is one of the areas of huge concern for CAWS. The level
of research, funding and activity in environmental weeds has been declining
over the years to the point where it is not non-existent but just so small that
it is insignificant, particularly with the loss of Weeds CRC.
The Invasive Species Council also stated that the 'research situation for
environmental priorities has worsened since the demise of the Weeds CRC'.
The Australian Museum, which possesses biosecurity capabilities in
diagnostics and detection, similarly argued that research capacity at the state
level was declining due to a lack of funding, which in turn reduces
opportunities for training students to maintain current levels of expertise in
The capacity is probably declining at the moment. We have
seen major losses of staff expertise...The Australian Museum has lost 50 per cent
of its researchers over the last nine years. We really need to think about
improving the funding. I realise this is a state responsibility at the moment,
but Australia's biodiversity is not the sole responsibility of the state. It
has to be a federal matter. So, yes, it is a major problem. If we were at least
to be paid to do some of this there is the potential therefore to support
students and to develop and mentor the next generation of systematists as some
of us get a little older and think about retiring.
Professor David Guest, University of Sydney, submitted that underfunding
of scientific research capacity in the biosecurity area is particularly
concerning given the nature of Australia's free trade obligations under the SPS
Agreement. Professor Guest stated that, in effect, a lack of published scientific
research on a potential pest leads not to its exclusion, but to allowing its entry:
"Science-based" means that only published
scientific evidence can be used in the pest risk analysis. Only organisms
studied and known to damage Australian plants and environments can be
considered. As published studies on the impact of exotic pests and diseases on
the vast inventory of Australian native plants and environments can only be undertaken
after an incursion has already occurred, the current pest risk analysis methodology
must conclude, for lack of published evidence, that there is no potential impact.
Ironically, this assessment is based on the absence of science. In almost every
field of science, medicine and engineering however, the absence of scientific
data invokes a "precautionary principle" that requires extrapolations
from current, albeit imperfect, knowledge to infer that a risk might exist and
should be avoided.
While the SPS does include a "precautionary principle"
that allows temporary restrictions on trade to facilitate scientific studies
where such uncertainty exists, the chronic underinvestment in funding and
capacity in science and quarantine means the capacity to conduct rigorous
studies in the very short time allowed does not exist.
This view contrasts with that put by the Ms Mellor of the Department of
Agriculture on the relationship between free trade imperatives and biosecurity.
We do not feel any pressure to take our foot off the very
conservative approach we have to biosecurity by virtue of the negotiation of a
free trade agreement. What it certainly does is open the door for dialogue
between two countries about priorities; then we get on with the job of
assessing the risk.
This position was also put in the submission of the departments of
agriculture and the environment, which emphasised:
...free trade agreements do not override Australia's rights and
obligations under the SPS Agreement to protect human, animal and plant life or
health. Australia's bilateral and regional free trade agreements therefore
reflect these rights and obligations to ensure that biosecurity risks can
continue to be effectively managed, and often include formal consultations on
sanitary and phytosanitary issues.
The CSIRO stated in evidence that it considers Australia's research
capacity in environmental biosecurity is quite strong; however, it noted there
are barriers to involving this capacity in the implementation of environmental
We think the science underpinning biosecurity—particularly
environmental biosecurity—is pretty good, pretty sound and strongly developed
in Australia. We believe Australia is one of the leading countries in terms of
science capacity, but there is fairly little capacity for that science to be
involved in the implementation of environmental biosecurity.
In general, the CSIRO expressed the view that Australia does not lack
scientific knowledge on how to respond to invasive species, rather it is a
question of how willing governments are to devote resources to implementing
effective biosecurity measures based on this knowledge.
The CSIRO noted that Australia had once led the world in developing
highly targeted, biologically based agents to suppress established pest
populations but that capacity in this field now stood at a quarter of what it
was 20 years ago.
The committee notes the concerning discussion of the decline in
biosecurity expertise in Australia in recent times contained in the CSIRO's Australia's
Biosecurity Future report. The report states:
Another major concern for Australia is the loss of
biosecurity-specific human resources. These declines are occurring broadly
across the biosecurity landscape, reducing our overall pest and disease
response capability. For example, there have been major declines in taxonomists
(an important part of diagnostics), with estimates that 50 per cent of
Australia's diagnostics capability will be lost by 2028.
In addition, many experienced staff in fields such as
epidemiology and entomology are approaching retirement, with a lack of younger
people available to take their place and meet immediate needs. A 2012 survey,
commissioned by the Australasian Plant Pathology Society and the Australian
Entomological Society, identified that the number of plant pathologists and
entomologists in the over 55 age bracket had increased since 2006, alongside a
decline in numbers in the under 35 age brackets. The study highlighted that to
maintain the status quo, 50 per cent of current capacity in these areas will
require replacement within 15 years.
This CSIRO report also echoes concerns mentioned above that overall
funding levels for biosecurity are too low, despite a significant boost in
expenditure following the Beale review in 2008, and that the manner in which
funding is delivered to research bodies is further hindering their work:
...it is clear that funding cycles are often short-term,
creating a mismatch between research efforts and biosecurity challenges, which
are often experienced over a longer timeframe.
The committee discussed recent funding cuts to the CSIRO and how this
had affected its ability to contribute to biosecurity activities. Dr Sheppard
stated that a recent restructure had led to the establishment of nine research
flagships, one of which is the biosecurity flagship, and that this reflected
the fact that biosecurity is viewed as an extremely important research area.
However, he also acknowledged that its ability to address environmental
biosecurity is restricted by the funding sources the CSIRO relies on:
...as a collaborative and cooperative research body which tends
to do the majority of its research through co-investment with clients of all
backgrounds, our capacity to do research is very limited by what the market is
interested in supporting. Certain aspects of environmental biosecurity have
effectively been in decline over recent years as a result of that.
The Department of Agriculture submitted that it 'maintains a strong
scientific capability, with many officers having tertiary science qualifications,
to underpin evidence-based policy development, decision-making and service
delivery across all areas of the department'. It also noted that ABARES
provides 'biophysical, economic and social research, modelling and analysis
across the animal, plant and marine spectrum'.
The Department of Agriculture also noted that it seeks external
scientific advice where required and cited the Centre of Excellence for
Biosecurity Risk Assessment (CEBRA), established at the University of Melbourne
via an agreement with the Department of Agriculture and the New Zealand
Ministry for Primary Industries, as an important source of external expertise. It
is currently intended that CEBRA will operate until 30 June 2017.
Utilisation of existing expertise
The committee heard evidence that, in addition to the funding
uncertainty for research in this area, existing expertise has not been fully
utilised. The Australian Museum submitted that the taxonomic expertise that
currently exists in Australia's natural history museums, while employed in an
ad hoc manner in the biosecurity system, could be better utilised:
...we wanted to emphasise the importance of accurate
identification of invasive species. That is especially where the expertise of
the museum and other state museums and state herbaria lie. Where we do a
significant amount of what is called taxonomic research—which is related to
identifying species, describing species, discovering biodiversity—and when we
are dealing with invasive species, there really is nothing more important than
actually knowing what you are dealing with. The identifications must be
correct. We wanted to emphasise the role that these state institutions need to
be playing in the biosecurity framework of Australia. At the moment we feel
that although the roles of museums are recognised, there is nothing formal in
place to ensure that the expertise is brought into play at the right time.
The importance of involving taxonomic expertise more heavily in the
biosecurity system was emphasised by several examples in the submission and
evidence provided by the Australian Museum. For example, the museum submitted
that the sweet potato flea beetle was overlooked in Australia for 15 years due
The museum also expressed concerns about the quality of priority species
lists and stated that the priority marine species list identified for the Species
biofouling risk assessment report contains, in their view, species that are
known not to be invasive anywhere in the world and, conversely, does not contain
some known high-risk species.
Dr Shane Ayhong of the Australian Museum cited the example of the Marine
Invasives Taxonomic Service, a centralised system in New Zealand, under which
relevant experts had been identified and placed on a retainer so that they
could be called on to make identifications quickly:
It was a centralised identification service for all marine
biosecurity samples that were collected around the country. That was
coordinated through my office. What would happen is every sample that was
collected for any biosecurity project would come to me at the Marine Invasive
Taxonomic Service. It would then be inventoried and receive a tracking number.
There would be chains of evidence et cetera. I would then distribute those
samples to the appropriate expert, who would be on retainer to turn around that
sample in a particular time frame. There were different classes of urgency.
Those identifications were centralised. I could send samples to an expert and
get the identification back very quickly. That would then be entered into the
database, the data would become available, the appropriate authorities would be
notified and the process would continue. That worked very well.
Admittedly, it is a much smaller scale in New Zealand. But
the scale of samples that we processed was 40,000 in about two years. That is a
very high rate of turnover. That was because it was a coordinated, centralised
service. All of the experts were not on site with me, but I knew who they were
and I had them on retainer. They were contracted to turn the samples around
when I got them. If there was a ship coming into port from the subantarctic
islands and there was a potential biosecurity issue, we would send someone up
there to take a sample and identify it quickly. We had a way of doing that.
This system cost $4 million over four years to operate in New Zealand.
The Australian Museum submitted that a similar system could be implemented in
Australia under the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity and would
speed up identification processes, make better use of existing expertise and
avoid duplication of work between states.
As noted by the Australian Museum, such a system would fall under the following
priority reform area already included in schedule 4 of the Intergovernmental
Agreement on Biosecurity:
Establish and adopt a framework for funding and managing
nationally collaborative surveillance and diagnostic activities, including the
development and consolidation of infrastructure and capacity.
A further example of where expertise might be better utilised was
provided by Dr Kirsten Parris and Professor Michael McCarthy of the University
of Melbourne. They reported that they had been called on by the Victorian
Department of Primary Industries to provide expert advice several times for
responses to possible incursions of the Asian black-spined toad. In their view,
response times are being slowed because expert advice is sought on an ad hoc
basis, rather than being consolidated into an environmental pest response plan
equivalent to those in place for the agriculture and marine sectors:
On both these occasions, it appeared that the agency had no
access to guidelines regarding the best way to respond to an incursion of the
toad. This has important implications for the timeliness and adequacy of any
response to an incursion. It also relies on the availability of experts to
provide timely and appropriate assistance on a case‐by‐case
basis. Importantly, such case‐by‐case assessment takes
time that would be better spent on actually managing the incursion.
The CSIRO noted that it had led the development of a National
Environment and Community Biosecurity Research Development and Extension
Strategy (NECBRDES) as part of the National Biosecurity Research Development
and Extension Framework under Schedule 8 of the Intergovernmental Agreement
on Biosecurity. This strategy remains at the consultation phase and has not
yet been submitted to the National Biosecurity Committee.
The CSIRO stated that this draft strategy:
...fully recognises the opportunity for improved national
coordination and responsibility, the need for increased investment in
environmental biosecurity, industry relevance to support this development and a
need to address this. The draft strategy also includes all the relevant
RD&E priority areas relevant for this Senate Inquiry including: risk
analysis and decision making; detection, diagnosis and surveillance; management
methods and strategies; and stakeholder engagement.
Climate change and biosecurity risk
Climate change is likely to increase the impacts of invasive species on
Climate change is also likely to increase the potential for weed and pest invasions,
and change the risk profiles of introduced species.
In light of this relationship between climate change and invasive
species, many submitters emphasised the need to devote greater scientific resources
to examining how climate change will alter the nature of environmental
biosecurity threats to Australia. For example, the CSIRO submitted:
The potential for future impacts of existing and future
incursions is, in many cases, going to be significantly impacted by global
change drivers, i.e. climate change, land use change (including clearing) and
changed disturbance regimes (e.g. fire). For example, a major biodiversity
management response for adaptation to climate change is to improve landscape
connectivity, but this also presents a significant opportunity for increased
invasive species invasion and climate change itself will lead to some species
migration along climate gradients. Novel ecosystems are already a reality in
the Australian environment, and these will only become more common with climate
change. New species assemblages, due to changed distributions of both alien and
native species, will require revisiting management options. Global change
drivers may result in considerable change to our current biosecurity risk
profiles, where currently low risk and low threat issues become greater risks
in the future.
The committee notes the suggestion in the CSIRO's recent Australia's
Biosecurity Futures report that advances in genetics may soon be able to
improve the process of identification, despite the decline in taxonomic
expertise Australia is experiencing:
...genetics may help to enhance taxonomy in the face of
declining specialists. DNA barcoding, for example, involves reading a short DNA
sequence from a genetic sample, recording this sequence in a public database,
and then comparing it against all other samples to understand how closely
related two organisms are. It provides a more objective analysis than just
recording the results of a single study that classifies a particular specimen,
and the data remains useful over time such as when species are reclassified or
previous taxonomies are questioned. DNA barcoding may prove to be extremely
valuable as it reduces the cost of species identification while at the same
time improving the quality and distribution of taxonomic information.
The Plant Biosecurity CRC reported that it had conducted some research
into the effects of climate change on plant biosecurity, but that its focus had
primarily been on agricultural pests, which nevertheless may have applications
in environmental biosecurity.
The Invasive Animals CRC emphasised the need to address risks posed by
more frequent extreme weather events, such as cyclones:
Through CSIRO we have a significant climate change adaptation
project. There is obviously a lot of additional complexity. As a policy
response, I think generally it would again be around trying to reduce propagule
pressure and the risk of establishment through phasing out the high-risk
species. Particularly to respond to the increased risk of extreme weather
events, it is focusing on high-risk point-source invasions. We know that, from
increased cyclonic activity, they can impact on some of the private zoos and
the like. It is trying to make sure that they are secure to those extreme
events. Similarly down south, it is looking at trying to minimise those types
of point-source risks. They would be game parks and the like.
The WTMA also stated that climate change would increase the
vulnerability of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and that risk assessments
must be updated to account for changing climatic conditions:
It is important to note that climate change is considered as
an important driver of increased vulnerability to pest invasion and changing
risk profiles of introduced species. Climate change will significantly increase
the potential for weed and pest invasions in the Wet Tropics and decrease the
resilience of Wet Tropics ecosystems. These changes will render many current
and past assessments inadequate. There is an urgent need to update risk
assessments to better account for how future climate will affect the invasive
potential of introduced species. These should include modelling of suitable
habitat for invasive weeds and consideration of disruption to ecosystem
function, changes to weather and rainfall patterns, and the potential for more
intense cyclones and more severe droughts.
Ms Anne-Marie Penna, Vice President of the Council of Australian Weeds
Societies, stated that climate change makes modelling the impact of invasive species
much more difficult:
...one of the problems with that modelling is that you are
looking at how things change based on changes to climate—but there are a whole
lot of interactions in the native systems that we do not understand, because
there just is not enough knowledge. Once you get changing plant communities,
you have an opening niche that something can potentially take a foothold in.
You always end up with the unexpected, such as things like arum lily—a wetland
species that has taken a foothold in coastal areas. You are always going to get
surprises, unfortunately. Again that gets back to the fact that we do not
really do a lot of research, or enough research, into native ecosystems as a
whole—and certainly not into environmental weeds.
The departments of agriculture and the environment noted in their
submission that ABARES has developed several modelling applications which can
be combined to 'model the potential distribution of exotic pests, based on
climatic and ecological/landscape factors'. The submission does not state
whether these applications can be used to model how climate change might
influence the potential impact of invasive species.
Given the limited resources available to the Commonwealth, state and
territory agencies tasked with protecting Australia's biosecurity, submitters
and witnesses agreed that it is important to employ a risk-based approach to
prioritising incursion pathways and invasive species. However, evidence
presented to the committee suggests there are pathways and industries that
currently pose a significant threat to Australia's environmental biosecurity and
that these areas require more intensive surveillance and tighter regulation.
Examples of such pathways and industries include: mail, cargo, the horticulture
industry and the live animal trade.
The committee also received evidence that suggests the effective
operation of Australia's risk-based biosecurity system is threatened by a lack
of resources, both within the Department of Agriculture and the Department of
the Environment, and within scientific bodies active in the biosecurity area,
such as the CSIRO, the Plant Biosecurity CRC, the Invasive Animal CRC and
Australia's natural history museums.
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