Environmental biosecurity chief delivers

Feral Herald |

Australia’s first Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer has been in place for a year, so now is a good time to review the success of the position.

After almost two decades of pushing for a greater focus on action on environmentally harmful invasive species, one of the Invasive Species Council’s main learnings has been that government progress is difficult unless there is clear assigned responsibility to address the problem.
The appointment of Ian Thompson as inaugural Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer (CEBO) in October 2018 puts someone in charge. He is supported by a team of four and a project budget of $825,000.

Historically biosecurity in Australia has been skewed. Despite its importance in guarding against the leading threat to Australia’s wildlife, biosecurity was led almost entirely by agricultural agencies with environmental agencies refusing to fully own the problem.

To address this institutional problem, and with the goal to make environmental biosecurity a priority equal to agricultural biosecurity, the 2017 Craik independent review of the national biosecurity system recommended creating a new environmental biosecurity position to provide ‘national policy leadership’. From that the CEBO was born.

The year in review

Addressing the Invasive Species Council 2019 AGM on 28 October, Ian Thompson reflected on a year’s achievements across many fronts.

In a short time, the Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer has made significant progress on defining the pests and diseases we should be worried about, led responses to new pests and diseases entering the country, built stronger relationships with the community and provided a leadership role on environmental biosecurity at the federal level.

An extensive list of projects supported by the first year of the Environmental Biosecurity Project Fund is underway. It includes preparation of biosecurity plans to protect mangroves and acacia, assessing the risks to northern Australia’s freshwater environments from the aquarium trade, better linkages with natural resource management groups, improved port surveillance tools for invasive ants, delimitation of a termite incursion on Christmas Island and support for the Australian Biosecurity Symposium. The full list of projects financed in the fund’s first year is provided below.

The CEBO convenes the newly formed Environmental Biosecurity Advisory Group. This group provides a formal conduit for community and environmental-focused interests and includes the Invasive Species Council, WWF Australia, Bush Heritage Australia, NRM Regions Australia and the local government association. This has become the first ongoing non-industry advisory body established for biosecurity by the Department of Agriculture.

Environmental priorities are being incorporated into the wildlife health surveillance systems, Australia’s foresighting systems and IBIS, the International Biosecurity Intelligence System that searches the internet for biosecurity information to assist in the early identification of new and emerging biosecurity threats. The CEBO also hosted a workshop on illegal wildlife trade.

The CEBO is leading a small group to develop a national environmental biosecurity framework that will identify the key elements of environmental biosecurity, the measures already in place and the priority actions necessary to strengthen environmental biosecurity. This will inform a revamped Environment and Community Research, Development and Innovation Strategy which now has a coordinator but has insufficient sources of funds.

Valuable but often under-appreciated is the CEBO’s participation at regular meetings and talks with non-government and government stakeholder groups and a presence on social media. Prior to 2018 there was no unified government voice for environmental biosecurity. Ian Thomson has acknowledged that while there is a lot of goodwill for environmental biosecurity, there is not a broad understanding of the risks posed by exotic pests and diseases or how best to manage them.

The work ahead

The CEBO and its office within the federal Department of Agriculture is permanent so we expect this work to grow from a strong start.

Underscoring some of the difficulties working on environmental biosecurity, Ian Thompson told Invasive Species Council members of the hard decisions that need to be made when responding to a new pest or disease, often in the face of major social and emotional barriers. An example of this may be the need to kill large numbers of native animals or plants in the face of a poorly known but rapidly growing biosecurity threat. ‘Not doing something can often be the worst thing that you can do.’

Work already underway but with a greater focus includes the review of the National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement, the preparation of the national priority list of exotic environmental pests and diseases, and the biannual environmental biosecurity roundtables. Work has begun on formalising working arrangements with the federal Department of Environment and Energy and with citizen science networks on how their data could be incorporated into a general surveillance system.

An important initiative for CEBO input is InvasivePlan, a generic framework for responses to new incursions of environmental pests and diseases. Until now the preparation of this much-needed plan has been slow, secretive and led by agricultural-based agencies.

A useful indicator of the challenge ahead will be the promised regular national State of Environmental Biosecurity Report. The NSW government developed a good baseline report in 2016 and South Africa completed an exceptionally good version in 2018. This work is in its early stages.

International solutions will be needed to reduce environmental pests and diseases hitching a ride on international trade and travel pathways. Recently 30 Asian black-spined toads, the cooler climate version of the cane toad, were found in a shipping container from Hong Kong. Fortunately, they were contained and euthanased.

Ian Thompson said that ‘we need to put invasive species on the international agenda.’ The CEBO has been doing just that by leading Australian efforts to convene an international contaminant pest symposium under the auspices of the International Plant Protection Convention. This work supports efforts by Invasive Species Council ambassador, Christine Milne, to address the use of wooden pallets in international trade, a high-risk host of harmful pests and diseases.

The CEBO is also looking at coordinating management of phytophthoera and the greater use of e-dna monitoring, a focus on pest risks facing World Heritage Areas, applying social media tools to address wildlife trade issues, preparing for the arrival of new myrtle rust strains and supporting indigenous rangers to focus on environmental pests and diseases.

A very good start

The CEBO arrangement is not perfect. The CEBO and his small team is no match for the enormity of the work ahead.

There is still much work to do to prevent and respond to new pests and diseases. Environmental programs are still without the needed focus due to the lack of deep engagement in the biosecurity system by the environmental department at national and state levels, and this federal department’s year-on-year funding cuts. Community involvement also falls short of the collaborative model envisaged in our proposal for Environment Health Australia.

Despite this, thanks to the formation of the Office of Environmental Biosecurity, Australia’s environment is a few steps safer from harmful pests and disease. A lot has been achieved in a year, but major challenges still lie ahead.

Sectoral comparison of Australia’s biosecurity system

Prepared by Office of Environmental Biosecurity October 2019.

Acronyms used

ACPPO – Australian Chief Plant Protection Officer
ACVO – Australian Chief Veterinary Officer
PHC – Plant Health Committee
AHC – Animal Health Committee
EIC – Environment and Invasives Committee
PHO – Plant health officer
CVO – Chief veterinary officer
EPPRD – Emergency Plant Protection Response Deed
EADRA – Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement
NEBRA – National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement

More info

Environmental biosecurity project fund – funded 2019-20

  • Northern Australian freshwater aquarium trade scoping study – due for completion 2019.

The aquarium trade poses a major biosecurity risk to endemic freshwater ecosystems internationally and in Australia. This project addresses these identified issues through conducting a scoping study for improving understanding and management of aquarium trade related biosecurity risks in Northern Australia.  This study will be used by the Northern Australian Quarantine Strategy (NAQS) to provide guidance around the development of surveillance activities and build response and preparedness capabilities.
Collaborator: James Cook University

  • National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement (NEBRA) Incidents Portal – due for completion 2020

Effective responses to environmental biosecurity incidences using NEBRA require readily access to key information. This project develops a web-based portal that will be a central repository of information for members of the consultative committees. These committees form in response to specific incidents and decide if it is technically feasible to eradicate a pest or disease. They are the National Biosecurity Management Consultative Committee (NBMCC) and Consultative Committee on Introduced Marine Pest Emergencies (CCIMPE).
Collaborator: Plant Health Australia

  • Environmental Biosecurity Plan for Australian Acacia Species – due for completion 2020

Acacia is the largest genus of flowering plants in Australia and is vulnerable to exotic pests that could have significant environmental impact on the keystone species. This project will finalise the Environmental Biosecurity Plan for Australian Acacia Species and produce a Biosecurity Implementation Plan, including priorities, actions and possible responsible organisations/ groups to carry out activities. It will also develop the high priority pest list for Acacia species, deliver a map of key stakeholders and identify risk pathways. The plan will describe various activities that can be undertaken to improve Australia’s ability to respond to the introduction of new Acacia pests.
Collaborator: Plant Health Australia

  • Environmental Biosecurity Plan for Mangroves and Associated Communities – due for completion 2020

Mangroves are critical parts of coastal ecosystems and deliver a range of ecosystem services, including erosion control, storm protection, waste treatment, carbon sequestration, and are breeding and feeding grounds for fish and other species. Many are close to first points of entry of ships and aeroplanes. This project develops an environmental risk mitigation plan for mangroves and associated communities, including (i) determining the biosecurity risks, risk pathways and review risk mitigation actions with input from external stakeholders; (ii) an environmental biosecurity risk mitigation plan; and (iii) deliver a stakeholder workshop to map the various roles and responsibilities.
Collaborator: Plant Health Australia

  • Upgrading the wildlife disease database – due for completion 2020

The wildlife health database (eWHIS) is one of the key components of Australia’s general wildlife health surveillance system. This project ensures that Wildlife Health Australia can continue the provision of quality database and information services. Data collected in the eWHIS database is provided to the department for national and international reporting (e.g. OIE, IUCN), National Emergency Animal Disease Response plans; situation reports during emergency disease events; and serves as an early warning of diseases that may affect production animals, humans and the environment. An upgrade of the ageing system will deliver significant benefits to the database’s capacity for analysis, reporting and administration management allowing for increased automation of the reporting process and user efficiencies.
Collaborator: Wildlife Health Australia

  • ExtensionAus – Peri-urban general surveillance in NSW – due for completion 2021

General surveillance has been identified as a cost-effective form of continuous surveillance for early detection of many pests and diseases. Hence, strengthened general surveillance has been identified as a priority in key strategic biosecurity-related documents, including the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity (IGAB) and the National Plant Biosecurity Surveillance Strategy 2013-2020. This project will contribute to establishing general surveillance in peri-urban areas through the creation of an online Community of Practice to improve small landholder and community interest group involvement in general surveillance in the Greater Sydney area.
Collaborator: New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

  • Termite delimitation survey of Christmas Island – Coptotermesgestroi and Coptotermesmichaelseniongoing

Coptotermesgestroi and Coptotermesmichaelseni are termite species that are invasive, destructive, and exotic to Christmas Island. Christmas Island is a Commonwealth External Territory and hence the Commonwealth is responsible for taking the lead on biosecurity incident responses on the island. This project involves a survey to collect adequate data to support the National Biosecurity Management Consultative Committee’s decision on whether C. gestroi and C. michaelseni are technically feasible to eradicate from Christmas Island.
Collaborator: Western Australian Department of Primary industries and Regional Development

  • Engage Natural Resource Management organisations in environmental biosecurity – complete

The regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) sector has significant capacity and capabilities that could contribute to environmental biosecurity. This project delivered a workshop with senior officials from NRM organisations on 26 June 2019 in Sydney to introduce biosecurity, including what biosecurity is, the challenges and successes. The workshop explored the alignment between environmental biosecurity and NRM and where the NRM organisations can assist in surveillance and responding to environmental biosecurity threats. It also initiated high level discussion between those already involved in the biosecurity system and the NRM organisations.
Collaborator: Queensland Regional Natural Resource Management

  • Supporting the National Invasive Ant Biosecurity Plan implementation – complete

Ants detected in and around Australia’s major ports as part of on-going surveillance activities need to be quickly identified to prevent the establishment and spread of invasive ants. A key necessity is to quickly distinguish exotic ants from native and endemic ants commonly found around ports. It is therefore important that ants commonly encountered around ports are easily identifiable. Action 1.2 in the National Invasive Ant Biosecurity Plan 2018-2028 stresses the importance of having resources available for the identification of native and exotic ant species that can be used by front-line biosecurity staff in the Department of Agriculture.

  • Production of high quality ant images – complete

This project contributed images for five ant species to work already commissioned elsewhere in the department involving the production of a series of high resolution images of ants commonly found around ports.
Collaborator: Queensland Museum

  • Production of supporting material for high quality ant images – complete

This project contributed supporting information for images of 10 ant species commonly found around major ports. Combined, the images and supporting information will be used to readily exclude ant species commonly encountered around ports when ant detections are made.
Collaborator: Magee Consultancy Services

  • Providing sponsorship funding for the 2019 Australian Biosecurity Symposium – complete

This sponsorship provided the department with all the inclusions of a Diamond Sponsorship package for the 2019 Australian Biosecurity Symposium that was held 12-13 June. It provided an opportunity to recommend speakers who align with the department’s biosecurity priorities, including environmental biosecurity, and create awareness of key biosecurity issues among the wide variety of 380 attendees. The sponsorship contributed to environmental biosecurity education and communication.
Project information provided by the Office of Environmental Biosecurity October 2019.

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