Writings: Fire ant fact check: Two incursions eradicated. Really?

In January 2016, the Science Manager of Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program wrote that the program had eradicated two incursions of the Red Imported Fire Ant. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/emr.12197/full Just six months later, the Port of Brisbane, Queensland’s largest port and the site of one of those incursions, was back on the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone map, along with the nearby Brisbane Airport and five other adjoining suburbs. How could the Science Manager get it so wrong?

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Biosecurity Queensland has wasted $350m of public money on a fire ant program. The infestation is now ten times bigger than it was at the beginning. Fire ants are now out of control in south-east Queensland. The fire ant program is now in limbo while the Australian Agriculture Ministers considers the recommendations of the panel of the 2015 independent scientific review of the program on what to do next. The assessment of the previous scientific review panel in 2009 had been damming.  They said that Biosecurity Queensland was not eradicating fire ants and probably had not been eradicating fire ants since 2005.  As fire ants continue to spread at a steady rate and re-infest areas that were supposed to be ‘fire ant free’ it seems that Biosecurity Queensland STILL cannot eradicate fire ants.

In his article, the Science Manager described how the Port of Brisbane had been baited 3-4 times a year for 3 years, how the buffer zone around the infestation had been inspected each year and how the whole Port had been inspected twice after the treatments had finished. He did not report that hundreds of litres of insecticide that had been injected into the more than 600 nests at the Port.  This extreme measure was warranted at the Port. A fire ant infestation would jeopardise the massive amount of cargo that passes through the Port and really impact on Queensland’s economy. The Port of Brisbane appeared to be fire ant free for some years, but now it is not. And injecting massive amounts of insecticide into the ground is not an option in the urban areas and farmlands that make up most of the 400,000 infested hectares of south-east Queensland.

Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program Science Manager wrote that in 2011 the program’s national over-view committee had accepted that the Port of Brisbane was fire ant free.  No country that has been invaded by fire ants has ever eradicated them.  Consequently, there is no internationally accepted standard for ‘fire ant eradication.’ An earlier science review panel, in 2006, was worried about this. They said that Biosecurity Queensland needed to develop an acceptable standard to support its claims of eradication. To date, Biosecurity Queensland has not produced an eradication standard or any standard-based evidence to support any claims of eradicating fire ants.

The second incursion that the Science Manager of Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program claimed has been eradicated was the one found in Yarwun, near Gladstone in 2006. He described how Yarwun had been given fewer treatments and inspected less often than the infestation in south-east Queensland because it was a smaller infestation.  Again, he said that the national overview committee had accepted, without any standard based evidence, that Yarwun was now fire ant free. Unfortunately, in November 2013, another incursion of fire ants was found at the Port of Gladstone, genetically different from the ones at Yarwun, so a separate incursion, but only 4km away it. Time will tell if Yarwun is truly free of fire ants, but it is hard to have confidence in Biosecurity Queensland’s efforts when it failed to detect a new infestation just 4km away from its operations.

In 2009, the scientific review panel said that Biosecurity Queensland needed to develop better methods for treating and detecting fire ants. In his January 2016 article, the Science Manager claimed that they had. He said they had been using remote sensing technology to detect fire ant nests by helicopter. By May 2015, the remote-sensing technology had detected a total of eleven nests while the public had detected thousands more and the technology is not used any more. The Science Manager also wrote that Biosecurity Queensland was using a habitat model to target treatment to areas of disturbed soil – a favourite habitat of fire ants. The 2009 scientific review panel had cautioned against just treating disturbed soil because fire ants can nests almost anywhere. And they did and so they spread. The Science Manager also claimed that Biosecurity Queensland’s use of genetic analysis for tracing the source of new infestations was useful, but it has done nothing to stop the continuing spread of fire ants.

As the Agricultural Ministers consider the recommendations of the 2015 scientific review panel for the future of the program, Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program Science Manager argues that, for a future eradication program to be successful ‘Resources must be adequate’; in other words; ‘give us more money.’

One would hope that whatever future the Agricultural Ministers decide for the fire ant program is well funded. But one would hope they don’t give the money to Biosecurity Queensland. Biosecurity Queensland has already wasted approximately $350m of public money on a failing fire ant program and has a history of blaming failure on poor funding rather than on incompetent management. In 2006, as fire ants continued to spread AND to re-infest areas that had been fully treated, the director complained to the 2006 scientific review panel that his problem was a shrinking budget. The review team did not buy his argument. ‘It is normal for funding per hectare to reduce over time’, they said. They were more inclined to believe that the Director’s decision to change the timing and sequencing of treatments was the more likely cause of fire ant still being on the march.

And in September 2015, an independent panel assessing Biosecurity Queensland’s capability said much the same thing.  The panel agreed that Biosecurity Queensland does suffer from uncertainty about future funding, but they sheet the blame back onto Biosecurity Queensland’s inability to provide funding bodies with a good case for future funding.  The review panel was greatly concerned that Biosecurity Queensland does not have an effective performance management information system to collect high quality, timely and well-understood performance information. Without quality performance data, the panel said, Biosecurity Queensland cannot evaluate it use of resources like staff time and funds.  Consequently, they said Biosecurity Queensland does not optimize the use of its resources.

And without quality performance data, the review panel said, Biosecurity Queensland cannot plan strategically. Consequently, the panel said, Biosecurity Queensland prioritises high-cost emergency responses, with variable rates of returns over lower cost activities like testing the system for critical points, surveillance for early detection and intelligence gathering to identify current and future threats, which are likely to have higher rates of return.

Without an effective performance management information system and without high quality performance data and no acceptable standard of eradication, it is hard to believe any claims that Biosecurity Queensland has eradicated ANY fire ants.

If you are concerned about fire ants in your area, inspect your property, report anything suspicious to https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/plants/weeds-pest-animals-ants/invasive-ants/fire-ants/forms-and-notifications/report-fire-ants and complain to Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne at agriculture@ministerial.qld.gov.au


19 November 2016