Environmental Biosecurity Chief Delivers

Andrew Cox, CEO Invasive Species Council

The year in review

Addressing the Invasive Species Council 2019 AGM in October, Ian Thompson reflected on a year’s achievements as Australia’s first Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer (CEBO).

The position is based in the federal department of agriculture and complements the Threatened Species Commissioner in the environment department. Its role is to ensure Australia’s environment and amenity is safeguarded from the impacts of exotic pests and diseases.

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. Environmental priorities are now being better incorporated into Australia’s foresighting systems.

Many projects have begun in the first year of the newly created environmental biosecurity fund. These include preparation of biosecurity plans to protect Mangroves and Acacia, an assessment of the risks to northern Australia’s freshwater environments from the aquarium trade and improved port surveillance tools for invasive ants.

The CEBO hosts the newly formed Environmental Biosecurity Advisory Group that provides a formal conduit for community and environmental-focused interests, including the Invasive Species Council, WWF Australia, Bush Heritage Australia, NRM Regions Australia and the Australian Local Government Association. This has become the first ongoing, non-industry, advisory body established for biosecurity by the department of agriculture.

Valuable but often under-appreciated is the CEBO’s participation at regular meetings, talks with non-government and government stakeholder groups and a presence on social media. Prior to 2018 there was no central 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 the difficulties of 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 such as the need to kill large numbers of animals or plants in the face of a poorly known but rapidly growing 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 plan has been slow, secretive and led by agricultural-based agencies.

Ian Thompson said that ‘we need to put invasive species on the international agenda’. Specifically there is a need 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 dead on arrival.

The CEBO is also looking at coordinating management of Phytophthora, focusing on pest risks facing World Heritage Areas, 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 the thousands of new pests and diseases that could harm Australia’s natural environment. The lack of deep engagement in the biosecurity system by the environmental department at national and state levels and the federal department’s year-on-year funding cuts mean that environmental programs are still without the needed focus.

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 lie ahead.

More information

This is an edited version of a longer piece that appeared in November 2019 in the Feral Herald, in the online blog of the Invasive Species Council.

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