Australia is fortunate to remain free of many of the world’s most serious pests and diseases.

This is in part due to our geographic isolation, but we can also thank the strict regulations in place at our ports of entry in keeping some of the worst offenders at bay.

For as long as we’ve been aware of the risk posed by the careless introduction of weeds, pests or diseases, the threat has been on the rise. A changing climate, and a rise in travel between a greater number of regions than ever before demands increased vigilance.

As outlined by the Department of Agriculture on their website, ‘Australia works across the whole biosecurity continuum with offshore, at the border and onshore measures.’ As the threat increases, the tools to detect and prevent risks is also advancing, such as x-ray machines, surveillance and detector dogs. The biosecurity controls at our borders help to minimise the risk of exotic pests and diseases entering Australia and protect our $32 billion agriculture export industries as well as our unique environment, native flora and fauna, our tourism industries and lifestyle.’

However, while our strict border controls are protecting new incursions, we still need to contend with a significant suite of pests, weeds and diseases already present across our continent. Issues such as Phytophthora, circubit mosaic virus, banana freckle, Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome, Red Imported Fire Ants and fruit fly are, in some cases, moving beyond their containment areas – often travelling further south as a changing climate opens up new opportunities for spread.

Managing the impact of established pests and diseases is central to the business of NRM organisations. Our regional NRM bodies play a critical role in combatting biosecurity risks. Not only do they act as a go-between with landowners and government agencies, they can help to spread the word about new or potential risks, provide resources and information to tackle emerging issues and often serving as the first port of call for landowners who have spotted a new problem on their property.

In 2012, NRM Regions Australia undertook a review of the 56 regional NRM plans and determined that the top two threats to sustainable NRM (measured by the number of regional plans identifying those threats) were feral animals (93%) and invasive weeds (89%).

It follows that pests and diseases are recognised as significant priorities by almost all NRM organisations and this is reflected in the work programs and the partnerships that have been developed with communities and agricultural industries in addressing established pests and diseases. In addition, within some jurisdictions regional NRM organisations have statutory roles in relation to pests and diseases. For example in NSW, Local Land Services regions deliver a range of pest and disease management statutory services, in Victoria the Catchment Management Authorities develop regional weed plans to guide State and Federal investment, and in South Australia regional NRM organisations focus on motivating communities and industries to action while delivering a range of statutory services.

To effectively manage established pests and diseases, there needs to be effort and coordination across a number of fronts. For example; research and development, compliance, extension, incentives and support for collective action at the local level. For long term success and to address severe or unexpected events such as plague or disease outbreaks, institutional and personnel continuity is required to ensure regional leadership and response capacity, knowledge, systems and community networks are in place in times of need. The level of coordination needed requires resources and is ultimately dependent on action on the ground to deliver change. Coordinated on-ground action is best delivered at regional scale.

National NRM biosecurity projects

NRM Regions Australia is working with regions and the Australian Government on two small projects to explore the role of NRM regions in biosecurity and the opportunities for them to be further engaged.

Environmental biosecurity
NRM Regions Australia has been contracted by the Australian Government’s Chief Environmental Biosecurity Office to deliver a workshop with NRM organisations to discuss environmental biosecurity, existing or potential regional NRM activities, and challenges and successes. The workshop will explore where NRM organisations can assist in surveillance and responding to environmental biosecurity threats. It will also initiate high level discussion between those in the biosecurity system and NRM organisations.

Plant health biosecurity
To help recognise existing work and enhance partnerships, the Department of Agriculture and Water have contracted NRM Regions Australia to carry out a gap analysis of Regional NRM bodies plant biosecurity preparedness and surveillance capacity. The project will focus on identifying both existing and potential capacity along with barriers and enabling factors to fulfill potential capacity.

Controlling rubber bush along the Kimberley coast

As part of a State NRM funded project, Balanggarra Rangers have been tackling weed infestations of the noxious weed calatropis (rubber bush) along the north Kimberley coast. The North Kimberley coastal area incorporates the Balanggarra Native Title Claim, a national biodiversity hotspot, and the Berkeley River, King George River, Cape Whiskey Creek and Londonderry Creek, all categorised as pristine or near-pristine wild rivers.

Infestations of the declared plant calotropis (rubber bush) have been identified at the mouth of the Berkeley River and near Bertram Cove. The air-filled seed pods of this weed are likely to be spread by floating on tidal currents or winds and are landing on beach fronts. The 4 m high poisonous shrub can be hazardous to humans, can change the composition of native plants, and can threaten nesting of sea turtles in the coastal area.

This project aims to eradicate calotropis from the Kimberley coast and monitor other weeds in the process.

Resources
An introduction to environmental biosecurity (2019) –  Ian Thompson, Australian Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer, Dept of Agriculture (PDF presentation)