WA community group Friends of the Fitzroy has won a Froggatt Award for uniting land managers, keyboard weeders and AI to successfully tackle invasive rubber vine in the lower Fitzroy River and its surrounds.
The Invasive Species Council’s annual Froggatt Awards recognise outstanding achievements in Australia’s fight against environmental weeds, diseases and pest animals. This award acknowledges project coordination and innovative leadership from John Szymanski and financial support from the Western Australian government.
‘Rubber vine arrived in the West Kimberley in 2005. From the outset, the costly weed has threatened to choke native ecosystems, waterways and farmlands in thick monocultures like it already had in northern Queensland,’ said Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox.
‘What Friends of the Fitzroy have achieved since 2012 has left them verging on eradication. It’s a remarkable effort.
‘They combined professional land managers, expert rubber vine spotters up in helicopters, keyboard weeders and AI to exploit the weaknesses of rubber vine,’ said Mr Cox.
With 265 square kilometres of the Fitzroy River Valley infested with rubber vine when they started, Friends of the Fitzroy were quick to realise they wouldn’t be able to eradicate the weed through on-ground control alone.
‘You have to know thy enemy,’ said Friends of the Fitzroy founder John Szymanski.
‘Our core ground team just wouldn’t ever be able to cover the entire infestation area alone,’ he said.
‘We’ve managed to get rid of the main infestations of rubber vine from the lower Fitzroy River and surrounds by detecting and destroying approximately a million plants,’ said Mr Szymanski.
‘We fly a small helicopter over the entire infestation area after every wet season. Two cameras attached to the underside of the helicopter capture millions of ultra high resolution images as we fly.
‘Flying at 150 kilometres per hour, an image is captured every 10 metres so every part of the infestation area is captured from different angles in 4 images.
‘Machine learning software reduces those millions of images down to only tens of thousands but, as good as computer software is, nothing beats the human brain.
‘It’s a case of many eyes making light work. We’ve had hundreds of volunteers search for vines in aerial images captured during our annual helicopter search.
‘Once a flowering vine is detected, we send in the ground team to clear it out before it can set seeds.
‘Only isolated plants are likely to remain and machine learning is helping us track those last rubber vines down.
‘When we introduced new machine learning software a few years ago, we detected 150 flowering plants from 60 the year before.
‘If our eradication strategy is followed through then eradication is entirely achievable.
‘The Friends of the Fitzroy team and wider community has also felt great ownership of the program and the local indigenous team members derive much kudos from being part of the project restoring and protecting Country,’ said Mr Szymanski.
‘The innovation on display by the Friends of the Fitzroy is an inspiration for all land managers and shows how effective community-led projects can be at protecting our landscapes from invasive species,’ said Mr Cox.
‘There’s still a big final push needed to reach eradication in the region for what is such a tenacious and damaging weed, and that responsibility now lies with the Western Australian government who took over finishing the job in late 2022,’ he said.
Friends of the Fitzroy are one of two Froggatt Awards 2022 winners, with Steve Taylor also receiving an award for developing a powerful weed control map for the ACT. Also receiving special commendations were Holdfast Habitat Heroes, Tambo Bluff Landcare Coastcare, City of Gold Coast Natural Areas Restoration Team, Save Our Waterways Now Enoggera Catchment Care, Conservation Ecology Centre and South West Woody Weeds Action Team.
Multimedia materials to accompany this story are available on request. John Szymanski and Andrew Cox are available for interview.
Background notes for editors:
The Invasive Species Council’s annual Froggatt Awards are named in honour of the Australian entomologist who was a lone voice lobbying against the deliberate release of cane toads in the 1930s. The awards recognise outstanding achievements in Australia’s fight against environmental weeds, diseases and pest animals.
More background about all winners and commendations of the Froggatt Awards 2022 can be found in our recent blog.
Nominations for the Froggatt Awards 2023 will open in the coming months.