The first Environmental Biosecurity Roundtable for 2019 was held at the National Museum in Canberra on 1 May 2019. 81 participants took part in the roundtable, marking it the largest environmental roundtable since the meetings began in 2016.
The event was hosted by the Environmental Biosecurity Office at the Department of Agriculture and supported by the Department of the Environment and Energy.
Item 1: Welcome & acknowledgement of Country - Ian Thompson, Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer (CEBO), Department of Agriculture
Ian Thompson’s key message was that environmental biosecurity is not something new or separate from what we’ve been doing. It’s just part of a broader range of activities across sectors and a stronger recognition that exotic pests and diseases can impact human health, amenity, industry, the environment and the economy.
Mr Thompson noted that a continuous theme throughout the day’s roundtable would be community engagement and that community-led action is an essential part of maintaining an effective biosecurity system. Mr Thompson encouraged everybody to think about how they could be involved in promoting shared responsibility in environmental biosecurity.
The initial priorities for the CEBO will be to continue building and improving relationships across the environmental sector; finalise the national priority list of exotic environmental pests and diseases; provide a national notification point for environmental pest and disease incursions; lead the Environmental Biosecurity Advisory Group; administer the Environmental Biosecurity Project Fund, to drive investment and build environmental biosecurity capability and capacity; and guide implementation of the National Environmental and Community RD&E Strategy.
Item 2: Department of Agriculture update - Josephine Laduzko, Department of Agriculture
Jo Laduzko, Assistant Secretary, Biosecurity Policy and Implementation branch highlighted the importance of the roundtables in providing a space for key stakeholders in biosecurity to come together, share experiences and plan the future of our national biosecurity. Ms Laduzko emphasised that protecting Australia’s biosecurity is a challenging task that is growing in complexity each year. For example, in 2017-18 there were 22.4 million international air and sea travellers cleared, 152 million international mail articles processed and almost 68,000 sea container inspections conducted. Over 295,000 items of significant biosecurity concern were removed from travellers coming into Australia during this time.
Ms Laduzko announced that the department was working with industry, community and states and territories to develop a national biosecurity website, a dedicated website to help improve the accessibility of Australian biosecurity information. The beta release would be available for comment from mid-2019 at beta.biosecurity.gov.au.
Ms Laduzko provided background on the National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement review and an update on the National Biosecurity Committees implementation of its recommendations. An eight week consultation period on the draft revised NEBRA would allow an opportunity for feedback to be considered.
Item 3: Department of the Environment and Energy update – Veronica Blazely, Department of the Environment and Energy
Veronica Blazely, Director of the Environmental Biosecurity Section introduced the new Assistant Secretary of Wildlife Trade and Biosecurity Branch, Mr John Gibbs. Ms Blazely noted that the Minister for the Environment had made a new Threat Abatement Plan (TAP) for disease in natural ecosystems caused by Phytophthora cinnamomi in February 2019 and added five species to the Live Import List since the last environmental round table.
Ms Blazely noted two Parliamentary inquiries relevant to invasive species were underway: the impact of feral dear, pigs and goats in Australia and controlling the spread of cane toads. Ms Blazely provided an update on the work of the Feral Cat Task Force, convened by the Threatened Species Commissioner. Ms Blazely discussed the review of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes a target on alien invasive species, and advised participants that the Australia Government will consult with stakeholders in developing its negotiating position on the development of new targets.
Item 4: Environmental biosecurity Initiatives in the ACT - Stephen Hughes, Alison McInnes, Steve Taylor, Oliver Orgill, Wendy Townsend, ACT Government - Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate
Stephen Hughes, Director, Biosecurity and Rural Services, spoke about the unique nature of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) where the majority of land is managed by government. Over 52 per cent of the ACT is national parks or nature reserves. Mr Hughes highlighted initiatives underway to strengthen environmental biosecurity in the region, these included: reviewing species in the ACT Design Standards for Urban Infrastructure; broadening the list of declared pest animals; piloting drones for remote weed control; extensive use of the ArcGIS online Collector app to map invasive plant populations; and expanding the Canberra Nature Map reporting project. Canberra Nature Map has proven to be a key tool for weed management. On over 200 occasions, reporting through Canberra Nature Map has led to eradication or effective control of 85 new (to the ACT) weed species.
Item 5: ‘What’s New’ in environmental biosecurity
Invasive Species Council - Andrew Cox, Invasive Species Council
Andrew Cox, Chief Executive Officer, provided background to the formation of the Invasive Species Council (ISC) in 2002, including their mission and vision. Mr Cox highlighted that invasive species are the most prevalent threat to nationally-listed threatened species, however there is limited coverage offered under existing management mechanisms (for example identification of Key Threatening Processes and associated Threat Abatement Plans under the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). Mr Cox talked about the environmental biosecurity risks and pathways project, a partnership between ISC and Monash University to identify exotic insects with the greatest risk of environmental impact in Australia. He also demonstrated some examples of how Canada raises biosecurity awareness through campaigns such as ‘play, clean, go’ and ‘clean, drain, dry’.
Understanding General Surveillance in biosecurity as a system - Marwan El Hassan, Invasives and Social Sciences ABARES
Mr El Hassan introduced the ABARES research project focussed on understanding both the potential and challenges for general surveillance in biosecurity. Mr El Hassan explained the project aim is to gain a holistic understanding of the general surveillance system, develop a set of guidelines and principles and lay the foundations for a community of practice. The project will provide a national oversight of programs and clearer guidance about the social, technological and institutional requirements to make general surveillance more effective and accessible. Mr El Hassan described the methodology and collaborators behind the project including some initial observations. Key issues identified to date have been: lack of trust and feedback, fear of stigmatisation, technology infrastructure and the need for ongoing learning (community of practice).
Measuring the Value of Environmental Assets at Risk from Biosecurity Threats: How should it be done? – Professor Tom Kompas, University of Melbourne
Professor Kompas introduced the project and explained the choice modelling survey design method which was used. The survey comprised of over 10,000 individuals. Over 68 per cent of respondents were aware of the terms ‘biosecurity’ and ‘invasive species’ however only 16 per cent ranked invasive species as an environmental risk. Tom talked about risk modelling around Yellow Crazy Ant distribution and compared simulations to determine net benefits for eradication, including analysis of costs and households’ willingness to pay to avoid contact with Yellow Crazy Ant. The benefit of eradication is estimated to be at least 20-180 times greater than the cost under plausible assumptions made.
Managing Environmental Biosecurity Risks – Dr Helen Scott-Orr, Inspector -General of Biosecurity
Dr Scott-Orr provided an overview of the legislative and other arrangements in place across the Australian biosecurity system and factors that were considered in her review report on Australia’s environmental biosecurity arrangements. Dr Scott-Orr highlighted some of the key distinctions between challenges for environmental biosecurity compared to agricultural biosecurity. These include an expansive range of biota and ecosystems, less knowledge about the pathways for entry and spread and many unknown impacts of exotic pests and diseases, particularly on native ecosystems.
Dr Scott-Orr explained each of the seven recommendations put forward in the report Environmental risk management in Australia. To read the recommendations in full, including the government response, visit: igb.gov.au.
Item 6: ‘What’s New’ session continued
What’s new in the ALA – Peggy Newman, Atlas of Living Australia
Ms Newman talked about Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) - a collaborative national project that aggregates biodiversity data from multiple sources and makes it freely available and usable online. ALA is hosted by the CSIRO and receives support through the Australian Government National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Project. It has almost 50,000 registered users and over 84million occurrence records. Ms Newman explained the different components of the system which ensure that the ALA is a reliable source of environmental information, these include: data capture, data processing, data discovery, data analysis and verification.
National forest pest surveillance program – Paco Tovar, Plant Health Australia
Mr Tovar explained that the term ‘forest’ included native, urban and plantation forests – and together these made up a substantial part of our habitable rural and urban environments. Mr Tovar added that despite our best efforts, exotic forest pests continue to establish in Australia. However, there is potential to address a gap which exists in general surveillance within urban and peri-urban areas, which will ensure early detection and increased chances of eradication. The National Forest Pest Surveillance Program helps to address this through pathway analysis, high-risk site surveillance and general surveillance capacity building. Mr Tovar highlighted some key general surveillance tools to support forests and environmental biosecurity, these included: jurisdictional pest and disease data readily stored and accessible in a national database; and building a general surveillance network incorporating key stakeholders (arborists, councils, friends of groups, etc.). If you would like to become involved or would like more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rethinking wildlife health surveillance from the ground up – Dr Andrew Peters, Wildlife Health Australia
Dr Peters’ research interests encompass wildlife population health, evolutionary biology of pathogens and host-pathogen dynamics. His work attempts to understand the origin of infectious organisms and their dynamics in natural systems and subsequently the relative significance of emerging disease in conservation.
Dr Peters is interested in capacity building in wildlife health in Australia and Papua New Guinea and has carried out research and training programs in PNG since 2009. He is a leader within the wildlife health scientific community in Australia and internationally.
Australian Chief Plant Protection Officer update – Dr Kim Ritman, Australian Chief Plant Protection Officer, Department of Agriculture
Dr Ritman spoke about the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) activities, including the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) in 2020. The IYPH theme is “Protecting Plants – Protecting Life”. To help mark the occasion, the department, under the leadership of the Chief Plant Protection Officer, have created a steering committee which will be responsible for creating a calendar of events, a communication strategy and incorporating the IPPC IYPH 2020 objectives and merging Australia’s activities into the global context. Much of the focus will come from Plant Health Australia with strong industry involvement.
Item 7: The story of the north – holding back winter! – Brett Evans & Nancy Mosby-Kirk, Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy, Department of Agriculture
Mr Evans and Ms Mosby-Kirk talked about the scale and breadth of work involved in managing biosecurity across northern Australia and the Torres Strait, with over 10,000km of northern coastline and a range of regulated and unregulated pathways with potential to introduce exotic pests. As well as mainland Australia, front line staff are based across the Torres Strait and conduct a range of activities such as clearances, on-ground surveillance and monitoring and public awareness. Community partnerships are essential to the success of biosecurity with initiatives such as the indigenous rangers program forming the backbone of Australia’s biosecurity surveillance in Northern Australia. The introduction of Country Handle with Care, a new seven episode video series featuring new biosecurity champions, such as Costa the Garden Gnome and Matt Moran have brought energy and enthusiasm to public awareness activities around biosecurity.
Item 8: Involvement of community groups in marine pest surveillance – Andrew Christie, Melbourne Polytechnic and Marine Care Point Cooke
Mr Christie introduced Marine Care Point Cooke (MCPC), a community based ‘friends of’ group who aim to conserve and promote both the environmental and biodiversity values of Point Cooke Marine Sanctuary, in the north-east corner of Port-Phillip Bay, Victoria. Mr Christie noted that in recent years, the group has been successful in securing two grants for assessing the densities and the impacts of two marine pest species, Undaria pinnatifida (seaweed)and Sabella spallanzanii (polychaete worm). Mr Christie observed that there tends to be a significant amount of “cross-pollination” between the friends groups in the northern section of Port Phillip Bay, which is particularly useful when it comes to discussing issues such as introduced marine pests and sea urchins.
Mr Christie highlighted that perhaps one of the best outcomes from the involvement of friends groups and suitably qualified scientific experts came in February 2010 when the Japanese slipperyweed, Grateloupia turuturu, was identified by an aquatic botanist who happened to be on board during a scientific expedition aimed at improving knowledge of Port Phillip and Westernport Bays. The weed has since continued to spread throughout the intertidal and subtidal region of Point Cooke Marine Sanctuary, and at the time of writing is due to feature in some studies on genetics. A variety of students have been involved in research into invasive marine pests at Point Cooke Marine Sanctuary through a number of educational programs at Melbourne Polytechnic.
Item 9: Workshop - Opportunities and barriers to general surveillance – Ian Thompson, Heleen Kruger & Natalie O’Donnell, Department of Agriculture
General surveillance offers a key opportunity to strengthen surveillance of exotic environmental pests and diseases in a cost-effective way. However, it is well known that general surveillance initiatives can be difficult to implement and maintain. This workshop provided an opportunity to consider general surveillance from a systems perspective and asked participants to identify key opportunities and barriers, in particular from the perspective of where they are placed in the biosecurity system, e.g. commonwealth government, state/territory government, research/academic, etc.
Opportunities to progress general surveillance that are likely to deliver a high return on investment (efforts & resources)
Two key opportunities identified stood out:
- Stronger data processing, integration, standardisation and management – including integration across federal government, state/territory governments and science using unified platforms, data standards and initiatives to ensure data quality. Better use of artificial intelligence, such as image recognition and for processing large amounts of data.
- Tapping into existing community networks and engaging others active in the outdoors – including retirees; youth; natural resource management organisations, Care and Friends of groups; wildlife groups; local government workers. Using key personalities as advocates and regional bodies as connectors.
Key barriers to general surveillance and possible solutions
Theme 1 – Community engagement (raised by 10 tables)
The community’s motivations and values are not well understood. There is a need to better understand how to most effectively create awareness and motivate people, including providing them with a sense of responsibility. A business case/value proposition for the community to get involved is needed. There are barriers such as fear of reporting that may lead to for example, devaluation of land. Better communication with the community is required, yet government capacity to engage the community is limited. In addition, how can the community collect data so that it could be readily shared?
Understand the target groups’ motivations and capacity, seek to win and maintain their trust and tailor the engagement to their needs and preferences. Tap into people’s motivations and values; and provide incentives for participation to develop a business case for their participation. Understand and address barriers, such as stigma and quarantine ramifications that may result following a pest or disease detection. Tailor communication materials in appropriate language. Use champions who will resonate with the target groups. Understand which groups are best to engage, such as hobby and enthusiast groups or ethnic groups. Provide national coordination and leadership.
Theme 2 – Diagnostic capacity and capability (raised by 5 tables)
Limited diagnostic capacity for general surveillance, including access (limited number of experts available), funding, triage expertise and networks. Could become a bottleneck with increased number of reports. Accuracy of data from general surveillance and technology availability could be lacking and/or distrusted.
Invest in technology such as automated image recognition; field-based diagnostics tools, e.g. mobile sequencing technologies; built-in reference library within reporting platforms; and drones/helicopter infrared for population information. Train more taxonomists and specialists and ensure that there are jobs available to them. Utilise more research/university institutions that have the relevant expertise. Educate those contributing data to general surveillance programs to ensure better identification accuracy. Start education from an early age. Education can be built on pest and diseases priorities.
Theme 3 - Limited funding (raised by 5 tables)
On-ground surveillance is time and resource intensive and limited funding is a key barrier.
Not covered as part of Q3. Identifying solutions
Theme 4 - Silos & fragmentation (raised by 4 tables)
Silos in government, across sectors (agriculture, environment and health) and across levels, i.e. state government, federal government, conservation/NRM, local operational services, and AHA/PHA/WHA. For example, Animal Health Australia is funded by agriculture, therefore its focus is on impacts on livestock and domestic animal biosecurity, not on native animal biosecurity.
Improve communication within and between departments as well as with external stakeholders, such as research community, industry, organisations, for example, through roundtables and having convening roles. Aim for greater transparency across government, e.g. through an intergovernmental platform (including functions and/or a directory). Better sharing of data could happen through a data repository or an open data agreement.
Theme 5 – Data and IT (raised by 3 tables)
The abundance of organisations/apps collecting data is resulting in disjointed data across sectors and jurisdictions. Sharing data can have negative implications, including nervousness about identifying pests at properly scale. It is important to know where pests are; where they are emerging; and where they are reducing in numbers. Ensuring high quality data can be challenging and currently data standards are inconsistent.
Develop partnerships and collaborations, and ensure an openness to and exchangeability of data. Develop data standards that will cover a range of areas, e.g. fields, security, and processing rules and allow for different methods of data collection. Data needs across jurisdictions/sectors need to be taken into consideration with the needed funding arrangements and a sustained development plan put in place. Governance require consideration including a mandate to run the system. Emerging technologies, such as new apps and model platforms, such as AUSPestCheck, offer opportunities. Other case studies, e.g. Medicare, can provide insights.
Theme 6 - Difficulty to achieve good surveillance coverage across geographical locations and species of concern (raised by 3 tables)
General surveillance often occurs at areas of high access, not areas of high risk. There are also remote areas across a vast country to cover. Ad hoc approaches seem prevalent with many existing strategies that weren’t implemented. The focus on new and emerging species may mean that these species could be difficult to find and identify.
Not covered as part of Q3. Identifying solutions
Theme 7 - Over-regulation (raised by 2 tables)
There are too many permits for the community to obtain. It is difficult to meet regulatory requirements. How do community groups know if they have covered all regulations? Volunteers may not want to fill out forms.
Streamline regulation, for example by establishing ‘accredited operators’ provisions where certified accredited operators receive less regulation. Regulation could also be delegated to state and local authorities. Maintain continuous dialogue between regulator and regulated communities.
Theme 8 - Fear of reporting (raised by 1 table)
There is fear of reporting by states and private landowners, e.g. because of land devaluation, or financial / reputational impact
Create trust and relationships. Show the problems and impacts of not reporting as well as the benefits of early reporting. Create pathways to change that will enable reporting behaviour with intermediary steps and engagement, such as a step by step training program. Establish mechanisms to mitigate against negative impacts on ‘reporters’ such as insurance, diversification, or a government compensation or industry compensation fund.
Key workshop findings
- The top two key opportunities identified that will deliver a high return on investment for general surveillance were:
- stronger data processing, integration, standardisation and management; and
- tapping into existing community networks and engaging others active in the outdoors
- The two key barriers that participants identified to gaining more value from general surveillance were:
- deficiencies in community engagement and
- a need to strengthen diagnostic capacity and capability.
A full summary of the workshop is available upon request.
Item 10: Q&A panel - Environmental Biosecurity Advisory Group and CEBO
Milena Rafic facilitated a question and answer session with a panel comprised of the Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer, Ian Thompson and Environmental Biosecurity Advisory Group members:
- Dr Rebecca Spindler, Executive Manager, Science and Conservation Bush Heritage Australia
- Prof. Tom Kompas, Professor, University of Melbourne and co-chief investigator at CEBRA
- Dr Jennifer Firn, Associate Professor in Ecological Science, QUT and Ecological Society of Australia
- Mr Andrew Cox, Chief Executive Officer, Invasive Species Council
- Mr Warwick Ragg, General Manager, Natural Resource Management, National Farmers’ Federation)
- Mr Bethune Carmichael, Policy Advisor, Australian Local Government Association.
The Environmental Biosecurity Advisory Group, established in 2018 and Chaired by Ian Thompson, is a sub-group of the Environment and Invasives Committee (EIC) that provides a mechanism for environmental biosecurity stakeholders to discuss and provide advice to the EIC on environmental biosecurity policy and strategies, and other environmental biosecurity issues.
- Environmental biosecurity has a range of fantastic things we can do, question in regards to private land holders, is there thinking around how private land owners will help fund environmental biosecurity initiatives?
- Working through the open standards for conservation. Private land owners generally monitor and evaluate their operations. Building a data base to build a market (impact investment network) to pull financial resources to build this platform. There are large amounts of data being collected, need to focus on analysis, reporting and assimilation. From this stage we can identify gaps and invest in these areas. The main focus is on developing a portal to facilitate this.
- The short answer if we are asking land owners to fund environmental biosecurity is no.
- Landcare needs to have more funding for coordinators. At the current rate there is not enough for the outcomes needed. Is the possibility that Landcare can receive more funding?
- We cannot comment on funding arrangements in caretaker period. However, you can draw from instances throughout Landcare’s long history of experience with different numbers of coordinators at various levels. There is no debate that good coordination makes a difference in quality delivery. However, governments have a lot of things to spend money on.
- Where does group sit in relation to the National Biosecurity Committee (NBC)?
- EBAG reports to and advises the Environment and Invasives Committee, which reports to NBC. Information is also passed to NBC members, and plant and animal health committees through normal departmental channels. The advisory group’s objective is improving environmental biosecurity and working with stakeholder groups to achieve this. The Department of the Environment and Energy (DoEE) is an observer to the advisory group. Because environmental invasive species are an area that covers weeds and wild dogs, interest from the states is very high.
- (Follow up question to previous) What processes are in place to draw on a wider voice?
- Participation for this committee at round tables engages a large group of people. The group is already made up of a diverse group of people with their own networks to test ideas and bring them back.
- There is no formal structure in the community conservation sector and engagement often involve finding the right people. Most interested people are keen to gather and share news and experience. EBAG membership means key issues can be filtered back down to their associations.
- In the Threatened Species Commissioner’s team at DoEE, there is a large communications focus, and on social media channels there’s been a big response to ‘cute’ animals, but less on environmental pests e.g. myrtle rust. How do we better engage on these kinds of pests?
- Communications is a big issue. DoEE’s communication agenda and processes are well developed on environmental issues. The Department of Agriculture’s are less so.
- Communication needs to convey the message that biosecurity matters to everyone, and that biosecurity doesn’t discriminate at the border between environmental, amenity and agricultural pests. There is a need to send a message that it is relevant to the audience, for example fire ants could stop you having a BBQ. You can excite people about zebra mussels and myrtle rust, you just need to tell a story that effects the affected or interested population.
- What do you think the future of environmental biosecurity will look like in 5-10 years?
- A goal from the IGAB review was to equalise the treatment of environmental biosecurity to that provided to animal and plant biosecurity by 2022. I’ve met with many people and organisations since becoming CEBO and I can easily say that there’s a lot going on and many people dedicated to the cause. There are many opportunities to build upon this existing work and add value. A large part of the CEBO’s role will be to bring people together to achieve better outcomes for biosecurity. People genuinely want to be involved and there is a lot of good-will that we need to harness to focus our efforts.
- The long term vision is integrated biosecurity systems that allocates resources based on impact. Existing legislation already underpins environmental biosecurity initiatives. Inevitability of one system for all types of biosecurity (landscape, production, backyard, culture). Balance and appropriate weight where benefits accrue. The future looks data rich, secure and informed.