The importance of biosecurity in New Zealand: Part I

I have a preserved Australian red back spider at home as a paper weight that my parents bought back from a holiday in Queensland. It is a species that has arrived from Australia on hard wood that was intended to be used for power poles in Otago and Taranaki, and never got fumigated. Small colonies of this poisonous spider which is related to the Black Widow and the New Zealand Katipo now exist in these provinces. If this could arrive on wood intended for power poles then what else could have arrived in New Zealand and what could arrive in the future. And every time I look at it I wonder what the future holds for biosecurity in New Zealand.

The recent discovery of multiple fruit flies and larvae in Auckland might be seen as a reminder about how vulnerable we are to natural invaders from overseas. Some would argue that there is no point in trying to stop the incursion as they will eventually take over. Others will argue we are not doing nearly enough to protect ourselves from biosecurity threats, be they disease, insects, unwanted plant matter or marine pests. But what is biosecurity to New Zealand and why should we take it seriously?

Biosecurity is the protection of a nation from biological pests or matter or disease that cause economic and/or social damage and/or environmental damage. It might be something like the fruit flies that have been discovered in Auckland, or a maritime pest that arrived in ballast water from a ship that was not properly disposed of, or an invasive species such as fire ants. The damage that can be caused could be small scale issue such as the arrival of Australian huntsman spiders in Christchurch a few years ago, or large scale such as the foot and mouth disease crisis that was an international emergency and resulted in restrictions being placed on travellers in many countries.

Biosecurity works through several stages. At the border when you leave, customs check your suitcase and so forth for any prohibited goods or material that might be going out. At ports custom boats go out and check ships before they come into port. Because New Zealand has no land border, these are the only entry/exit points for people and goods going in/coming out of. However, their number, combined with the relatively small budget of New Zealand biosecurity, the large number of people arriving and leaving daily cannot be all screened properly. Every year we hear about the biopests that made it through the safety net – spiders, scorpions, ants, snakes, fruit flies. All that says nothing of the diseases, viruses and so forth that could have potentially come across the border, somehow incubated until after the mode of transport had cleared customs.

But biosecurity is about dealing more than just what might have arrived accidentally. A few examples of potentially deliberate threats include:

  • Bioterrorism – highly unlikely in New Zealand, but a nonetheless high consequence event, which would assume a group or individual with access to an agent such as anthrax threatening the country with violence if the Government did not comply with a demand
  • Biocrime – not terrorism, but the deliberate introduction/creation of a disease/pest or other harmful agent that is capable of doing significant economic damage or harm to people
  • Bioincident – not a crime or terrorism, but perhaps an emergency at a bio-lab testing highly contagious substances

In Part II we look at some of the scares of the last two decades and how they were (not)overcome.

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