Writings: Where are fire ants: really?

A vigilant Queensland public has found 60%-70% of the fire ants we know about so far. But, to remain vigilant, the public needs to now just where fire ants are, or are likely to be. But Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Restricted Area maps, now covering an area of 410,000ha, ten times more than in the beginning, are more about convincing the Commonwealth, States and Territory governments that it is containing and eradicating fire ants than encouraging the public to keep looking for them. A vigilant Queensland public is critical for finding fire ants but the public needs to know where fire ants are, or are likely to be, to keep up their good work.

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The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is funded by the Commonwealth States and Territory governments. To keep money coming into Queensland to fight fire ants, Biosecurity Queensland is keen to show more progress than problems. But maps of the Fire Ant Restricted Areas that Biosecurity Queensland must produce in reports to funders get bigger each year as fire ants spread: not a good sign of success.   Biosecurity Queensland (formerly the Fire Ant Control Centre) has responded by changing the appearance of the fire ant maps to reduce the appearance of the problem.

In 2001, fire ant maps showed the treatment area surrounded by three concentric bands of surveillance activity: the closest one in for 100% surveillance; the middle one for 10% surveillance and the outer band for 1% surveillance. But this made the extent of the infestation, or its likely extent, look too big. So, the two outer surveillance zones were dropped of the maps, and off program operations, entirely.

In the early years, the Biosecurity Queensland published full page, red-inked, notices detailing the street location of each new infestations in The Courier Mail. Such notices could appear in the same edition of the paper as a story touting the success of the fire ant program.   So, Biosecurity Queensland stopped publishing detailed street maps of each new infestation.

Bent on convincing funders that it was eradicating fire ants, Biosecurity Queensland started producing Fire Ant Restricted Area maps that identified suburbs within the infestation as either high or low risk.  Biosecurity Queensland’s intention was to show how suburbs identified as ‘high risk’ moved to ‘low risk’ and then ‘fire ant free’ status, over time, as their treatment was completed.  In December 2012, the Fire Ant Restricted Area map showed a red blob of 109 high risk suburbs surrounded by a yellow band of 96 low risk suburbs.

By October 2013, the number of infested suburbs was relatively stable with 116 high risk suburbs and 99 low risk suburbs. This was enough progress for Biosecurity Queensland to trumpet its success and in February 2014 announced that the suburbs of Eden’s Landing, Holmview, Loganholme, Sherwood and Tanah Merah had been declared fire ant free and that the suburbs of Corinda, Mount Marrow, Shailer Park and The Bluff had moved from being declared high risk to low risk.  But by November 2014 the suburbs of Eden’s Landing, Holmview, Sherwood and Tanah Merah had moved back onto the low risk list and the suburb of Loganholme had moved back onto the high risk list.

By August 2015, 158 high risk residential suburbs were substantially outnumbering 101 low risk semi-rural and rural suburbs.  The fire ant map now consisted of a very large red blob of high risk suburbs with little tongues of yellow, low risk suburbs extending north, south and west as fire ants continued their unstoppable spread.

With new biosecurity legislation coming into effect in July 2016, Biosecurity Queensland took the opportunity to produce a very different looking fire ant map. There is no big red blob of high risk suburbs with  low risk suburbs spreading out from it anymore. Now the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone map shows three biosecurity zones, in muted tones of brown, yellow and orange. Apart from their colour, there is no appreciable difference in the level of infestation or the movement restrictions that apply, between them. Zone One covers 111 predominately high density residential suburbs in Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan City Council Areas. Zone Two covers 114 predominantly peri-urban and rural suburbs in Redlands and Gold Coast City Council areas as well as the Lockyer Valley, Scenic Rims and Somerset Regional areas. Zone Three covers seven suburbs associated with the recently re-infested Brisbane Airport and Port of Brisbane. In total, the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone map of July 2016 shows fire ants infesting, or likely to be infesting, 280 suburbs covering 411,500ha: but in three muted tones rather than one big red blob.  See: http://swepson.com.au/2016/07/24/fire-ant-fiasco-fact-check/

In Sept 2016 Minister Donaldson sought to assure me that this was not as bad as it looks. She wrote that ‘of the 411,500ha within the fire ant biosecurity zones in South East Queensland (SEQ) there is only around 1 % of actual fire ant infestation…(and that)…fire ant biosecurity zones are not a good indicator of infestation.  Biosecurity zones are established to control human-assisted movement of fire ants …and indicate the operational area where treatment and surveillance are undertaken by the program.’ But Biosecurity Queensland’s own definition of a restricted area or biosecurity zone is an area that is ‘infested or likely to be infested and where movement control of restricted items apply’: ie the restricted area does indeed equal the area that is infested or likely to be infested. And operational maps from March 2016 shows active colonies, high density infestations and high risk areas covering significantly more than 1% of the maps.

Do all detections get reported?

If Biosecurity Queensland changes its Fire Ant Biosecurity Area maps to minimise the appearance of the extent of the infestation, are all new detections of fire ants included in the maps?

From the very beginning the Fire Ant Control Centre and now Biosecurity Queensland have kept a tight lid on reporting new detections: even staff don’t always know.

Around September 2016, fire ants were found, again, in the western suburb of Brookfield; beyond the bounds of the current maps. I asked Minister Donaldson when she intended to inform residents that fire ants had been found in their suburb so they could take care not to spread them. She replied that the infestation needed to be assessed because ‘In many cases an isolated infestation is unlikely to justify placing an entire suburb under movement controls.’ To date, the residents of Brookfield have not been told that there are fire ants in their suburb.

Each year, a vigilant Queensland public has submitted of hundreds of samples of suspect ants for identification and hundreds of them are, indeed, fire ants. But Biosecurity Queensland never reports where the samples have come from. Is a sample from a new infestation beyond the bounds of the maps, proving that Biosecurity Queensland is not containing the spread of fire ants?  Or is a sample from inside the bounds of the maps, proving that the Biosecurity Queensland’s treatment regime is not killing fire ants?

Ex-field assistants have told me that some significant detections never get reported. Staff tasked with validating ‘points of interest’ identified by the remote sensing surveillance helicopter got sick of writing ‘rock’ or ‘manure’ on their surveillance reports when they inspected a suspect property. But they were told not to report nests on the same property that the remote-sensing technology had missed: only to report on the ‘point of interest’; to keep the statistics looking good.

An ex-field assistant who was working on the program in 2004 told me they had found a huge infestation of around sixty fire ant mounds in a car park on the iconic and much-loved Mt Coot-tha.  Not only would this have been an environmental disaster, it would have been a public relations nightmare for the then Minister, Henry Palaszczuk, and the whole fire ant program. The field assistant said they were told not to say anything and as far as I can tell, this highly sensitive infestation has never been reported.

A vigilant Queensland public has been critical in finding fire ants but the public needs to know where fire ants are, or are likely to be, to keep up their good work.

21 January 2017.