AUSTRALIA is a great place to live. Our unique environment, native flora and fauna, and standard of living are the envy of many countries around the world.
A large part of that is due to a strong biosecurity system that helps us remain free of the world’s most severe pests and diseases.
To maintain our favourable risk status, the department sets scientifically selected import conditions and conducts biosecurity activities overseas, at the border and onshore to safeguard Australia’s economy, environment and way of life.
But the challenges to Australia’s biosecurity are growing. Trade and passenger movements across Australia’s borders set to double by 2025. Supply chain diversification, and changes to trade routes and commodities are also key issues.
As a department, we need to work smarter to ensure our biosecurity system remains effective in the face of substantial growth in trade. Strong partner ships with industry and other countries, are central to how we are stepping up to the challenge.
Protecting our oceans
In September this year, we responded to the biosecurity risks posed by ballast water – water taken on by ships for stability and trim – by introducing a new, national regime for ballast water management in Australia. Our domestic legislation applies to both international and domestic ships moving within Australia, and gives full effect to the International
Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast water and Sediments, which also took effect in September 2017. It makes us part of a global community of over 50 counties working together to strengthen marine biosecurity.
This work is obviously important for our economy and environment, but on an everyday level it affects the way we live our lives. Our ability to buy quality local seafood, spend time at the beach and enjoy activities like fishing and snorkel- ling are all impacted by the health of our oceans.
Responding to increased risk from exotic pests
September also marked the beginning of the high risk season for the brown marmorated stink bug, and some added off-shore biosecurity measures to prevent it arriving in Australia.
This highly invasive bug is a voracious feeder that is known to eat approximately 300 types of plants including fruit, vegetables and ornamentals. It is a nuisance pest as it enters vehicles, homes and factories in large numbers in autumn looking for places to shelter over winter.
Since December 2014, when high numbers of live bugs were detected on goods from the United States for the first time, we’ve had additional controls in place each year between September and April when the bug is most likely to shelter in or on vessels and cargo travelling from the United States to Australia.
Response measures like pre-shipment treatment of high risk goods have proven highly effective, largely thanks to the cooperation of shipping lines, importers, manufacturers, vessel operators and port authorities.
This year, we have extended the measures to target specific goods from Italy due to the spread of the pest in that country.
We’re also encouraging the use of traps at manufacturing and storage facilities, in locations where cargo is loaded, and on board vessels. Simple technology like light traps can provide early notification of the presence of the brown marmorated stink bug on break bulk vessels.
Entering Australia by sea
Under Australian biosecurity legislation, vessel masters are required to report the presence of live pests or signs of pest infestation, as well as the health status of crew and any passengers on board.
To assist them in meeting their obligations under the Biosecurity Act 2015, we’ve produced the Pests Alert brochure which highlights the pests found most commonly on vessels and cargo.
We’ve also published a 10-step checklist, in eight different languages, to assist with pre-arrival preparation.
Steps include preparing documentation, inspecting deck and cargo areas, and ensuring the galley is clean and free of insects and vermin. During biosecurity inspections, we check these tasks have been performed adequately, and that ballast water has been managed in accordance with the Australian Ballast Water Management Requirements available at agriculture.gov.au/abwmr .
Much like the way driving offences are managed in Australia, the Department uses a demerit points system so it’s clear what we look for during inspections, and the consequences of non-compliance. Under the Vessel Compliance Scheme, eligible vessel operators with a good standard of compliance may qualify for reduced physical inspections, which saves them time and money.
Taking this approach allows us to reward compliance and focus our resources on higher-value biosecurity protection activities.
At the port
Most containerised cargo entering Australia must have a cleanliness declaration. This document details how the container has been cleaned and the packing materials used.
Straw is strictly prohibited as a packing material, and timber must only be used if it is free of bark, and has been treated by an approved treatment provider or compliant with international phytosanitary standards (ISPM15). This is because it has the potential to carry hitchhiker pests and plant material. Some acceptable packing alternatives are synthetic foam, plastics, metal frames, inflated dunnage, wool, shredded paper, and other similar materials.
The main contaminants we look out for during inspections include insects, snails, animals, plants, soil and fungi. Some of their favourite hiding places are the bottom rails of containers, within forklift pockets, in and around twist lock fittings, and on container tops.
Checking and cleaning prior to shipping to Australia reduces costs and saves time on arrival. If you find something that you need help identifying, or responding to at a port, give the See Secure Report hotline a call on 1800 798 636. You’ll also find a wide variety of information at agriculture.gov.au to assist.
Dealing with risk on-shore
Where possible, we try to deal with contamination on site at seaports, however there are situations where we need to divert cargo to approved arrangement sites for further inspection and treatment. In more serious circumstances, where the contamination is unable to be dealt with in Australia, we may need to send the cargo back offshore.
Building a robust system for third party service providers to perform inspection and treatment functions on our behalf, is a critical aspect of preparing for increasing trade across our borders. We are conducting a number of trials with selected operators using their own premises, facilities, equipment and people to conduct inspections under an approved arrangement.
We are also exploring online tools that would assist operators to train their staff to the required standard.
Dealing with risk before it reaches us
They say prevention is better than a cure – and this is certainly true of biosecurity. We significantly improve our ability to prevent exotic pests and diseases taking hold in Australia if we can prevent them arriving on our doorstep.
One way we do this is by cleaning and treating sea containers and cargo offshore.
The Sea Container Hygiene System is a collaboration between industry, the department and New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, and is designed to ensure shipping containers are cleaned and treated in accordance with set quality standards.
The scheme reduces the likelihood of biosecurity management being required when containers reach Australia or New Zealand. All containers imported under the system are subject to six-sided inspections to verify their cleanliness, and reductions in inspections are available to participants who demonstrate a good compliance history.
After sustained compliance, Department intervention levels may drop to as low as 5%. However the converse is also true, with compliance increasing immediately if monitoring shows contaminated containers are arriving. We’re sharing biosecurity risk with industry, but we’re doing it in a controlled way to ensure no additional risk to our borders.
Similar arrangements are in place for overseas fumigation of cargo. Treatment providers registered with the Australian Fumigation Accreditation Scheme, Ethylene Oxide Offshore Treatment Providers Scheme, and Offshore Irradiation Treatment Providers Scheme, all provide offshore treatment of consignments in accordance with Australia’s strict import requirements. This results in less corrective action at the border to deal with contamination, and smoother importation into Australia in general.
The maritime environment presents some complex and interesting challenges to biosecurity, but at each stage of the supply chain we’re working hard to protect Australia from unwanted pests and diseases through robust compliance activities, innovative business practices, and partnerships with industry.
If you would like to read more about how we man- age biosecurity at seaports, please visit our website at agriculture.gov.au. Alternatively, you can phone us on 1800 900 090 or + 61 3 8318 6700 from outside Australia.
* Lyn O’Connell, is Deputy Secretary – Biosecurity, at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources
From the print edition November 23, 2017