Writings: Biosecurity Queensland's Fire Ant Fiasco and Cover-up.

Multiple independent reviews of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program have said that Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant treatment does not work, that fire ants are spreading faster than Biosecurity Queensland can find them and have recommended that Biosecurity Queensland implement an aggressive containment program. They haven’t. Fire ants now infest 400,000ha of south-east Queensland, taking in 300 suburbs, because Biosecurity Queensland can’t find fire ants, can’t kill fire ants, dumped its responsibility for stopping the spread of fire ants onto the public and cover-up the resulting fiasco. The Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum will decide the future of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program this month. For the sake of all Australians we have to hope they continue to fund one. But they will be throwing more good public money after the $400m that Biosecurity Queensland has wasted so far, if Biosecurity Queensland* whose incompetence has seen the fire ant infestation get ten times worse, continues to run the program. 17 July 2017 *Biosecurity Queensland also refers to it predecessor within the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries - the Fire Ant Control Centre.

Now showing category: Writings

In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the infestation in south-east Queensland was as bad as anything in the USA. They said we had a ‘narrow window of opportunity’ to eradicate fire ants if we went at them hard and fast with aerial baiting and aggressive containment. Instead Biosecurity Queensland (BQ) mounted a slow, expensive and trouble-riddled ground force that took two years to get the first rounds of bait down. And while BQ made it illegal to move fire ants they allowed businesses to manage their own risk of spreading fire ants.

In 2002, the first science review was shocked at the program’s lack of a sense of urgency. They couldn’t tell if the program could eradicate fire ants because, they said, there was no data. They said that if fire ants were not eradicated by 2004, the program should change to a containment program. But BQ told the Ministers’ Forum that the science report was favourable and the reviewers had said that eradication was possible.

In 2003, the detection of a huge infestation between Brisbane and Ipswich breached the Ministers’ funding milestone that no significant infestations should be found outside the treatment area. So BQ told the Ministers’ Forum it was just an ‘outlier’. That site is still infested and is now well inside the middle of the fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland

In 2004, the second science review team was concerned that the sites where fire ants were first detected in south-west Brisbane were still infested, despite being treated multiple times: meaning that Biosecurity Queensland’s treatment program does not work. But BQ told the Ministers’ Forum the reviewers were ‘very positive’ and ‘impressed with progress’ of the program.

In early 2006, the detection of another six large areas of infestation brought the area of the infestation up to 72,600ha: about twice the original estimate. On the one hand, BQ complained to the Ministers’ Forum that it was difficult to treat 72,600ha three times and they had to compromise the treatment regime by treating some areas twice only. On the other hand, BQ was ready to claim, despite a lack of data, that some areas were now fire ant free, that new detections were just the tail of the infestation, that the program was in the ‘mopping up’ phase and that Australia was now a ‘world leader’.  Some Ministers were becoming less willing to swallow BQ’s story, but they continued to fund the program. Areas that were once declared fire ant free and now back on the fire ant maps.

Later in 2006, the third science review did not accept BQ’s story that it was ‘mopping-up’ the fire ant infestation because fire ants were still re-infesting treated properties: continuing evidence that BQ’s treatment program is ineffective. And with the detection of another sixty infested sites, the reviewers said ‘fire ants are spreading faster than BQ can find them.’ Clearly frustrated, the reviewers complained that BQ had not implemented the recommendations of all the previous science reviews. They said BQ’s poor performance was due to poor management decisions not reduced funding, and said ‘Start again’ with aerial baiting and aggressive containment.  But BQ told the Ministers’ Forum that the reviewers said the program was making ‘satisfactory progress’ but that continued progress depended on more funding. The Ministers agreed to fund the program for another year, subject to another review in 2007.  That review did not happen until 2010.

In 2010, the fourth science review team were alarmed that the infestation was, by then, at ‘an all-time high of 93,000ha’ because, they said, BQ’s ‘surveillance methods are inadequate….and treatment methods are questionable’. They said BQ had not been eradicating fire ants since 2004/05. They recommended the program change to one of suppression and containment while BQ developed more effective methods, and be reviewed again in 18-24 months.  BQ told the reviewers that it was already developing remote sensing technology (a helicopter-mounted system of cameras) to quickly and cheaply detect fire ant nests from the air. The reviewers questioned the wisdom of the untested technology because, they said, it was likely to identify all sorts of rubbish as fire ant nests and miss actual nests.  Which is exactly what happened.

In 2015, when the remote-sensing technology was finally decommissioned, it had cost millions and found a total of 38 nests. As the 2010 review team had said, it identified millions of rocks and lumps of manure as fire ant nests and missed thousands of actual nests. In the meantime, the fire ant infestation blew out to 350,000ha covering 241 suburbs: well up on the 93,000ha that had shocked the reviewers in 2010.

Also in 2015, an independent review assessed Biosecurity Queensland’s capability and found that BQ lacks the ability to implement the changes required to meet current or future biosecurity needs because they are poor financial managers, choosing high cost/low impact responses and are poorly organised because they do not collect performance data to inform operational and financial decisions.

In 2015, as the fire ant infestation continued to spread unabated, the Ministers’ Forum commissioned another science review to consider all future options for the program: was it still feasible to eradicate fire ants or was the infestation so well entrenched that containment and management was now the best option. Knowing that the Commonwealth and other States would only fund Queensland to run an eradication program, not a containment program, well entrenched program managers might have feared for their jobs. And given that previous reviews had been quite damning, it is likely program managers might have chosen to assist the next review team. Indeed, the 2015 reviewers acknowledged ‘the generous contribution of…..all staff.’

The 2015 reviewers acknowledged that they could not conduct a cost benefit analysis of the program nor could they recommend an optimal future approach because of the program’s lack of performance data. Nevertheless, they recommended:

  • Continuing an eradication program rather than a containment program.
  • Further funding of $380m over ten years, for no more a sophisticated reason than it is close to the $400m spent over the past sixteen years.
  • Providing funding in five yearly rather than annual increments, on the basis of BQ’s claim that funding uncertainty was putting the program in jeopardy, when previous reviews said it was incompetent management.
  • The main plank of any future eradication program should be the now defunct, expensive and useless remote sensing surveillance technology.
  • And continuing current treatment and other programs, on the basis of BQ’s claim that previous reviews said the program’s science was ‘sound’ when in fact, the 2010 review said the program’s science was fragmented, ad hoc and a lot was fruitless.

Fire ant now infest approximately 400,000ha of south-east Queensland, taking in 300 suburbs from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast and from Redland Bay west into the Lockyer Valley. In recent months, fire ants have been found in at least seven new housing estates in south-east Queensland: threatening the safety of the residents of those new estates.

Fire ants continue to spread unimpeded as residents and businesses carelessly or accidentally move fire ants many kilometres in truck-loads of soil, mulch, compost, hay, turf or potted plants because Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility for implementing a fire ant containment regime. The Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014 creates a General Biosecurity Obligation which makes people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones legally responsible for not spreading fire ants, but it does not release Biosecurity Queensland from its own obligations to manage a containment program.

The public have done their bit: being responsible for 70% of new detections. But the public can’t remain vigilant when Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones map is over a year out of date and movement controls keep changing.  And Biosecurity Queensland has reduced to a mere handful the number of Biosecurity Inspectors who used to help businesses that deal in fire ant carriers to develop fire ant risk management plans, to monitor those businesses’ compliance with their plans and to prosecute those who illegally moved fire ants or fire ant carriers.

Biosecurity Queensland has almost no fire ant containment program, let alone the aggressive one that independent reviewers said is essential. Which is how fire ants were recently found infesting another new housing estate on the Sunshine Coast, 70km outside the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone.  The Director of the fire ant program is still claiming, still without data, that there is still a ‘window of opportunity’ for eradicating fire ants.  Because of Biosecurity Queensland’s incompetence, the fire ant infestation is now ten times bigger than in 2001. So, we have only one tenth of the slim chance US fire ant experts said we had in 2001 when they said described south-east Queensland as ‘fire ant heaven.’

For the sake of all Australians we have to hope that there is still an opportunity to eradicate fire ants and that the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum continues to fund an eradication program. But the Ministers will be throwing more good public money after the $400m that Biosecurity Queensland has wasted, if Biosecurity Queensland, whose incompetence has seen the fire ant infestation get ten times worse, continues to run the program.