A history of biosecurity scares in New Zealand

My last post examined how biosecurity works in New Zealand and why it is important. This post examines some of the biosecurity incidents that have assailed New Zealand over the years, how they were (not)dealt with, and what we can learn from them. People who do not like creepy crawlies should stop reading here.

Two years before I was first introduced to biosecurity via a course at University in 2003, there had just been a fire ant incursion at Auckland International Airport. These rapidly reproducing little red ants, which form colonies with obvious nests, are from South America, but are now found in several countries including the United States and Australia. They are so called from the fiery stinging sensation first described for medical science by a victim. Fire ants are an invasive species that can cause significant damage to crops, whose sting can require emergency medical treatment and can make recreational areas off limits.

But it was probably the varroa bee mite intrusion the year before that has most shocked me. A tiny little mite, less than a couple of millimetres in size was found in 2000. At the time the government of then Prime Minister Helen Clark decided to only expend $3 million on defeating this tiny critter. Around the same time as Minister of Arts she announced $80 million in new funding for the arts. Given that this pest is a potentially devastating thing to have intrude into all of the industries that rely on pollenation by honey bees and the jobs and livelihoods that would be the line, it is possible to understand the outrage. Due to the very nature of honey bees flying about in their business, the introduction of a single mite into a hive was considered to be the death knell for not only the host hive, but every other hive within 5km. The varroa was never fully wiped out and is now established to some extent.

In early 2001, a particularly nasty scare occurred. This was the now infamous foot and mouth disease outbreak in Britain where around 10 million sheep and cattle were slaughtered. The crisis cost Britain around $16 billion and led to the European Union imposing a world wide ban on British livestock, meat and animal products. Limitations are placed on tourist travel in the countryside, which ends up costing a further several hundred million dollars in lost revenue from  cancelled events, bookings and other expenditure associated with tourism. Fortunately for New Zealand an already relatively low  risk due to prior recognition of such a potential issue was lowered even further with the tightening of border controls. In this case it was actually beneficial to the N.Z. meat industry because of the European Union ban on British meat and livestock products.

Since then there have been numerous gypsy moth and fruit fly incursions. Asian Gypsy moths are the most frequent of the Gypsy moths to arrive in New Zealand. Another one that has shown up from time to time is the Painted Apple Moth which is a hazard for crop species, native forests. Were a Painted Apple Moth incursion to become established in New Zealand the estimated damage over 20 years is several hundred million dollars.

In 2004 it was discovered that a serious fresh water algae called didymo, but also nicknamed “rock snot” reached a biological threshhold in the United States where it suddenly began to very rapidly spread through natural fresh water courses. It is very difficult to get rid of in small streams and rivers once established and only larger rivers in New Zealand such as the braided ones in Canterbury which are prone to flooding can stay clean because it cannot get established due to the high flows. It is unclear how didymo got here. It harms the ecosystem by smothering it and looks like great wads of sewerage hanging off the rocks and is just as unsightly. Unfortunately here to stay. Will eventually get into the North Island river catchments. Could clog the intakes of small irrigation schemes and hydro-electric power schemes. Can be transported by not cleaning gumboots or waders if one has been fishing.

My biosecurity lecturer in 2003 wrapped his final lecture with conclusions from the course. One of them was that Australia will always remain New Zealand’s number one (!)source of biological pests due to its proximity to New Zealand and the large number of flights between the two countries on a daily basis. Another was that despite some clear failings and a need to improve funding and resourcing, our regulatory environment is amongst the best in the world for biosecurity. There is hope yet despite his final comment that probably 2-3 pest types a year will find a way to get into N.Z. unnoticed.

So the struggle to defend the border continues. Maybe we are more Australian than we want to admit.

*Dives for cover*

1 thought on “A history of biosecurity scares in New Zealand

  1. We arrived home to NZ just before the foot and mouth scare in the UK. To our dismay we saw on TV here a pyre of cattle being burnt. We had walked from Newcastle to Carsile along Hadrian’s wall. We walked through ‘Home Farm’, which we recognised as the place in the TV clip.
    As is our normal practise, we had scrubbed our boots clean before flying home, and we went through the bio- security gate on arrival at the airport.
    The thought that we could have brought foot and mouth disease to NZ was horrifying.
    I am so glad we are ‘clean’ kiwi’s.


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