'A hydra with many heads': Australia needs better protection from bio-invasion

Politicians face repeated calls to reduce emissions and stop land clearing, but there isn’t much public pressure for better biosecurity

In November 2018 the owners of the huge Ocean Monarch oil rig, towed into Hobart waters for maintenance, refused to let the Tasmanian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) inspect the hull for marine pests. One of the EPA’s concerns was a foreign sea squirt that had appeared in Western Australia in 2010, invading seagrass meadows in Perth’s Swan River.

In January the rig’s owners, Diamond Offshore, said they would inspect the rig themselves and submit their findings. The EPA’s impotence in this incident prompted calls for reform of biosecurity laws.

Australia is not as safe as it should be from invasive species, especially those that harm the environment. In 2017 an independent review of Australian biosecurity reporting to the government found that little had changed since the 2008 Beale review of quarantine, saying: “Australia has a relatively poor knowledge of the biosecurity threats to its natural environment. This is largely a function of the absence of commercial incentives to research and monitor environmental pests and diseases.”

The stakes have never been higher, given that invasive species are one of the main threats to Australia’s biodiversity, according to research by the Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

And in today’s globalised world, people and products are travelling more than ever, affording unprecedented openings for animals, plants and pathogens to spread and wreak havoc.

Up to 1960, some 20 mammal species were lost to foxes and cats, with rabbits contributing in some cases. In the 1980s, six frogs went extinct from chytrid fungus, a virulent pathogen from Korea. The southern corroboree frog would have joined their ranks had some not been brought into captivity.

A feared South American disease, myrtle rust, arrived in 2010 and three rainforest trees, namely native guava, scrub turpentine and main range myrtle, are already suffering so badly they have been recommended for listing in New South Wales as critically endangered. The main range myrtle is down to 10 trees surviving in the wild. More than 240 plant species show signs of infection and dire impacts are expected on more of these in future.

In 1987 Asian wolf snakes appeared on Christmas Island and by 2012 four species of lizard were extinct in the wild. One of these – the blue-tailed skink – vanished from its last refuge just weeks after three of them were found inside dissected snakes. Some blue-tails were captured in time, so they survive behind glass, but the less fortunate Christmas Island forest skink is gone forever.

Also extinct is the Christmas Island pipistrelle, a tiny bat, and while its demise was a complicated tragedy, wolf snakes and introduced giant centipedes are implicated.

Queensland department of agriculture anticipates costs of billions if the eradication effort of invasive red ants fails.
Queensland department of agriculture anticipates costs of billions if the eradication effort of invasive red ants fails. Photograph: Ian Alexander/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Red imported fire ants were first noted in 2001 and promise disaster to the environment, economy and Australian way of life. The department of agriculture anticipates costs of billions if the eradication effort in Queensland fails. These stinging ants can achieve such high densities, of up to 35 million per hectare, that many ground-dwelling animals are eliminated.

There are many pathways for invasive species into Australia. Risky imports include garden plants, fresh fruit and vegetables, aquarium fish, mailed itemsand creatures hitchhiking on the hulls of ships like those the Tasmanian EPA is concerned about.

Imported flowers are a particular hotbed for invasive species, with more than 130 species of crop pests found on inspection. Most rose consignments from Australia’s main suppliers – in Africa and South America – harbour hidden insects, mites and other undesirables.

One of the species detected on inspection of imported flowers is Russian wheat aphid, the same species found attacking South Australian wheat fields in 2016, before spreading to Victoria, Tasmania and NSW. Farmers now have to spray to control this dreaded insect, which stunts and sometimes kills wheat and barley crops. New aphid-resistant crop strains will be bred at great cost. Australia began fumigating flower imports back in 1996 but, faced with soaring imports, as countries with cheaper labour upped their market share, a system of trust was introduced. Overseas growers could certify their blooms were fumigated before packaging.

Introduced in 2013, this scheme was scrapped in 2017 after the number of insect and mite detections soared – rising from a thousand a year to more than four thousand. Standards have improved, but Australia currently imports 230m fresh flowers a year, mainly from Kenya, and no system can ensure every blossom is free of pests. The top imports, roses, are the worst because the layered petals offer snug hiding places.

What next? There are threats we know about, such as rock snot in New Zealand and a slew of eucalyptus and wattle diseases overseas, and others we can’t anticipate.

This is what distinguishes bio-invasion from climate change, since that threat is readily visualised. Invasive species are a complicated category, a hydra with many heads. Some people respond to that complexity by targeting the pests that most alarm them, without thinking much about future arrivals.

That means that cane toads, which can’t be eradicated, arouse more concern than the Asian black-spined toads arriving on ships and planes in rising numbers. One found recently in an Adelaide home had travelled unseen in luggage from Bali.

Politicians face repeated calls to reduce emissions and stop land clearing, but there isn’t much public pressure for better biosecurity. What lobbying there is comes mainly from industry groups, resulting in policy settings that prioritise defence of agriculture. The Invasive Species Council, a conservation group, wants the government to establish Environment Health Australia, a national body dedicated to environmental biosecurity, tasked with identifying problem species and keeping them out.

On a visit to Christmas Island in 2013, I saw the very last Christmas Island forest skink, so frisky and so shiny, just months before its death in captivity marked the demise of its kind.

In the 1980s, in a mountain stream near Maleny, I saw gastric brooding frogs, a few years before chytrid fungus claimed that species. No one should have the experience of seeing species go extinct. A country as affluent and clever as Australia deserves a biosecurity system that keeps our wildlife safe.


Tim Low

The GuardianTramp

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