On the inside: news about biosecurity

Feral Herald |

The agricultural and environmental biosecurity office has had budgets slashed, biosecurity funding is on the table, the National Biosecurity Strategy is moving forward, and the Decade of Biosecurity has a new national coordinator.

CEBO downgrading and belt tightening

It’s only March but 2023 has started with worrying news of a restructure and severe belt tightening at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

There are new controls on the recruitment of new staff, training and travel and biosecurity spending is being seriously scrutinised. We expect this to reduce the already disappointing attention given to environmental biosecurity risks. Some concerns stem from the costs of creating separate environmental and agriculture agencies after the federal election. Beforehand these functions were within a single organisation.

In a major setback for the environment, a department restructure released in February showed the Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer had been downgraded. The position was previously at the first assistant secretary level, mirroring the other two chiefs – Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Plant Protection Officer. The Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer has now been reclassified as assistant secretary level, reporting to the plant protection officer. This leaves two chiefs and one sub-chief.

Being subsumed into plant health functions will impact on the environmental focus of biosecurity decision-making at the senior level and weaken the status of the Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer. The Invasive Species Council has long been concerned that environmental risks have been poorly prioritised in a biosecurity system focused on diseases and pests impacting on agriculture and this restructure will be a significant setback since the role was created by the coalition government in 2018 as a result of our advocacy.

In a related change, Dr Robyn Cleland resigned as Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer at the end of December when she retired from the public service after a distinguished career. The Invasive Species Council was impressed with Robyn’s two-year stint in the environmental biosecurity role where she enthusiastically championed the needs of the environment within biosecurity circles and consolidated the work of inaugural environmental biosecurity chief, Ian Thompson.   

The incoming Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer is Dr Bertie Henneke. Bertie has a botany and agricultural academic background and has held senior roles in the federal government including heading up the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and leading plant biosecurity policy. 

We look forward to supporting Bertie in this new role and will push for the role’s first assistant secretary status to be reinstated. 

Biosecurity strategy moving forward

There was much promise that things would be different when agriculture and biosecurity ministers adopted the National Biosecurity Strategy in August 2022. Top of the priority list were stronger partnerships, a shared biosecurity culture, boosted capacity to respond to outbreaks and sustainable investment.

Six months on and the stakeholder Implementation Committee has met twice, providing feedback to proposed quick wins and the process for developing an implementation committee (due by July 2023) and action plan. The implementation plan will define a new governance structure and implementation framework while the action plan will spell out specific efforts and a monitoring framework. 

The Invasive Species Council is a member of the implementation committee, along with state and federal government reps, biosecurity industry and RDC reps, Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australian Food and Grocery Council, National Farmers’ Federation, NRM Regions Australia, Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and Freight and Trade Alliance.  The next implementation committee meeting will be held on 9 March 2023.

There’s still no change on the ground for now, but we are hoping these reforms deliver the promised changes quickly. Expectations are high and the biosecurity risks are growing. We will know in the coming months whether our federal, state and territory biosecurity agencies can deliver the changes so desperately needed.

A new phase for Decade of Biosecurity 

With the 2020s well underway, so too are plans to make this decade – the Decade of Biosecurity – mean something big for biosecurity. The implementation plan that has been under development since October 2022 is close to finalisation after a February national online workshop attended by about 50 people. This has led to a narrower focus, and a call for lead partners. Key projects are a national communications program, a network of biosecurity champions, a general biosecurity surveillance network, a national biosecurity response network and a partnership agreement.

The implementation plan will be finalised in March and launched in the second quarter of 2023. We are also pleased to welcome on board Emily Mellor as our new Decade of Biosecurity coordinator.

The Decade of Biosecurity is a collaborative initiative involving NRM, landcare, farmer, industry, community, biosecurity preparedness bodies and research groups, together with state, territory and federal biosecurity agencies. Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox chairs the steering committee. See biosecurity2030.org.au to sign the biosecurity2030 pledge and learn what’s happening. 

Funding for biosecurity

The need to source new funds for biosecurity has been a prominent topic since the 2017 biosecurity review found current funding could not keep up with growing risks and proposed a small levy on incoming shipping containers. After the container levy was abandoned in 2020 due to importer resistance and insufficient support from the agriculture sector, a replacement income source needed to be found. 

The federal Labor government is going to address this major deficiency after being elected on a promise to ‘deliver long-term, sustainable funding’ for strengthened biosecurity. A discussion paper presenting the full suite of options was released for comment in November 2022. There hasn’t been much action since, presumably with more detail to emerge in the 2023-24 federal budget in May. 

You can see the Invasive Species Council submission to the discussion paper here [add link when it is on our website or else delete this sentence].

Ensure you’re subscribed to Feral Herald for future insider updates on biosecurity.

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]