Posted on 19-1-2003

Australians Show NZMAF Ethics
By John Taylor, ABC, Oct01

Ed: Compare the below with NZ spray campaign agains Painted Apple moth -
blanket spray over everybody and everything in a substantial part of
Auckland City, no prior consent from citizens requested or given, no end
in sight and no involvement of public in the campaign.

The most audacious exotic pest eradication campaign ever seen in
Australia has begun. Six months after the red imported fire ant
(Solenopsis invicta) was discovered in Brisbane, a $123 million five year
effort has commenced to wipe the species out from our island continent.

No other country has eradicated fire ants. The insect has lived up to its
name - "invicta" translating from Latin as "not having been overcome".
But Queensland's Primary Industries Minister Henry Palaszczuk says
authorities have no choice but to try. To do nothing invites disaster.
"Uncontrolled, the ant could spread up to 600,000 square kilometres over
the next 30 years and that would then put it in the backyards of Sydney
and Melbourne, as well as into our major agricultural centres," Mr.
Palaszczuk says. And the projected cost to rural industry of unchecked
fire ants is enormous. "The Australian Bureau of Agriculture Resources
Economics has estimated these losses could be more than $6.7 billion over
the next 30 years,” Palaszczuk says. “In terms of agriculture, the fire
ant has the ability to inflict damage to livestock and crops, if it is
left unchecked. It could force a change, not only what we grow, but how
we grow it."


Fire ants were first discovered in Brisbane in February this year. They
came to the attention of authorities after two reports arrived on the
same day from separate parts of Brisbane. One was from Fisherman Islands,
the site of container facilities at the mouth of the Brisbane River. A
workman had been bitten by ants, and a sample was sent to the CSIRO. The
other incident involved a keen gardener at suburban Richlands in
south-west Brisbane, who was having problems with ants and gave a sample
to local DPI officers.

The exotic pest had never before been identified in Australia, and its
arrival was alarming. The Queensland Department of Primary Industries
(DPI) says last year in the United States, the State of Texas spent at
least $US580 million battling the exotic pest.

Keith McCubbin, director of the Queensland Fire Ant Control Centre
believes the pest broke through quarantine into Queensland on two
separate occasions. “[This seems to be the case] because we have a
slightly different strain in the Fisherman Islands area than we have in
the western suburbs,” he said. "The one in the eastern suburbs near the
mouth of the river has come from north America, and DNA and venom
analysis of the one in the western suburbs suggests it came from South
America. That's two separate incursions." But what was even more alarming
was the realisation that fire ants had been in Australia for years ahead
of their discovery. Mr McCubbin says the best guess has the pests
arriving between three and five years ago. "We're working on anecdotal
evidence that it could have been 3-5 years," he says. "However the
problem is we don't know how the Fire Ant operates under Australian
conditions, or even Queensland conditions come to that." "If it's been
here for three to five years and it's only spread to the areas that it
has then maybe it's not as virulent, if I could use that term, as some
other things,” he said. “It's not spreading as fast as you might have
thought it would for whatever reason. The only other thing is that it may
not have been here as long. “Though the advice we're getting now, and we
don't know enough about it, and we've got to err on the side of caution,
that if we don't do something now it could well take off."

To look at, fire ants are innocuous but appearances are deceptive. They
breed and spread rapidly. They have a painful sting that results in a
pustule and intense itching, which can persist for more than a week. Some
people are allergic to the sting and in rare cases, can die. For the rest
of us, the threat of being stung is enough to avoid areas where fire ants
are. Imagine not allowing children to play in their own back yards, or
not being able to have a picnic, or lounge about in a park, or play sport
on the local oval.

That is already happening in parts of Brisbane. "Some backyards have a
fire ant mound every square metre," Mr McCubbin says. "I know one
property where the kids have had to drag the trampoline up to the back
steps, and jump from the steps onto the trampoline then back on the steps
again. that's the only enjoyment they have of the backyard because the
fire ant was that bad." They are also a threat to infrastructure. Fire
ants are attracted to electrical systems in equipment as varied as
computers, swimming pool pumps, cars, and washing machines. They can
cause short circuits and fires. Fire ants also have a significant
environmental impact. They are aggressive and kill frogs, lizards, and
small mammals. Then there is the impact on agriculture. The DPI says they
damage seeds, and crops, mounds interfere with equipment, they deter hand
labour and they damage irrigation equipment.

Fire ants have been discovered in 730 sites in Brisbane's south-east
corner. The sites are largely confined to two areas - Brisbane's
south-west suburbs, and Fisherman Islands (the site of container
facilities) at the mouth of the Brisbane River.

The confinement of outbreaks gives authorities hope the pest outbreak can
be eradicated. All governments - federal, state and territory - have
contributed funds to the $123 million fire ant eradication
campaign.Around 35,000 hectares in Brisbane will be treated with a bait
made of two chemicals, whether there is a visible fire ant nest or not.
More than 500 people are working on the national fire ant eradication
campaign. Over 400 officers are designated field workers, applying a bait
containing the two chemicals S-methoprene and pyriproxyfen.

Each property in the treatment zone will be treated four times each year
for three years. There are three methods of application - on foot,
vehicle based for the more rural residential and industrial blocks with a
machine driven spreader, and aerial, for large open spaces (not
residential areas). Authorities say the chemicals are environmentally
friendly, low toxic, and break down very quickly in the environment. They
are insect growth regulators - working by preventing ant larvae from
developing into adults. Mr McCubbin says on the face of it, the fire ants
should be easy to eradicate. They respond well to baits, and the baits
are effective. "The real difficulty is... our ability to put the bait in
all areas of Brisbane that need to be baited."

Current indications are perhaps 1 per cent of affected homeowners will
not allow the baits to be placed on their properties. Homeowners
apparently have the right to deny treatment of their land, if they have
"genuine reasons". Steam treatment is an alternative option, but not as
effectiveBut even 1 per cent of homeowners equals 1,000
properties. It's enough to sink the eradication campaign or consume
significant resources. Officers would be required to make frequent and
regular assessments of non-baited properties. An added difficulty is that
it can take up to six months before a fire ant nest becomes visible to
the eye. Homeowners that deny baiting of their properties will be subject
to considerable lobbying from the DPI. <bold>"We're very conscious that a
person's home is their castle as well and we need to respect that.</bold>
However people need to appreciate this is one of the worst ecological
disasters ever to happen in Australia. And it's happened here in
Brisbane," Mr McCubbin says. "If we don't get rid of it now, and we
really have to do the job properly to do that, we're going to have to
live with this forever. We can do it, provided we get into everybody's
back yard and put the bait down. There should be no other reasons why it
won't work."

Mr Palaszczuk says the baits will no have no impact on people,
vegetation, or animals. Dogs and people would apparently have to eat
their own body weight to even have a chance at being sick. Given 83
grains of bait are spread per square metre, making a meal would be hard
work. But other insects and ants will die. It is a price Mr Palaszczuk
argues has to be paid. The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland
approves of the control program. Director Jan Oliver is taking a
pragmatic approach. "We recognise that the imported fire ants pose an
enormous risk to Australia's wildlife unless they are controlled now,"
she says. "Brisbane's wildlife may have to be sacrificed to save the rest
of Australia."

Mr McCubbin says already the fire ant has removed some fauna from pockets
in Brisbane. "What we've seen is the other ants, the native ants, some
native cockroaches and the skink lizards." Baiting will clear native ants
and many insects from entire Brisbane suburbs. But so will fire ants.
Once fire ants are gone and baiting has finished, authorities believe the
natural balance will be restored. <bold>Mr McCubbin says the campaign
team has begun cataloguing rare and endangered species and is looking at
breeding programs so that when baiting is finished they can be put back
into the environment.

Baiting though is only a part of the eradication campaign. Surveillance
buffer zones have been identified five, 10 and 15 kilometres from the
infested areas. For the next three years ground surveillance will be
carried out in the entire five kilometre buffer zone. Random inspections
will take place in the other zones. The campaign has constant monitoring
and surveillance to check the baits are eradicating fire ants.

The fire ant treatment phase should be completed by June 2004. Then it's
monitoring and validation work until June 2006 - when we should know if
the "invincibles" are as tough as feared. Authorities are upbeat. Mr
McCubbin gives good odds for success. "Advice we've had from American
scientists who came out here to help us develop the program is that using
the program we've pulled together we have greater than 80 per cent
probability of eradicating this ant. Which is very good."