Writings: Biosecurity Qld claims 'Fire Ant Program World Leading.' Fact: 'Leading Disaster'. After 21 years, infestation ~20 times worse, $700+m wasted. Time for a Royal Commission

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In the June 2022 edition of ‘Fire Ant News’ Biosecurity Queensland declared the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program a ‘world leader’ in eradicating fire ants after presenting ‘the scientific effort underpinning efforts to eradicate fire ants from Australia’ at the Australian Biosecurity Symposium.  

In December 2020, CSIRO reviewed the science of the program. They said the seven scientific principles underpinning the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program were a mish-mash of poorly reference biological details and management actions. They said these ‘principles’ had failed to respond to a major change in the population of fire ants infesting south-east Queensland.  The dominant type had changed from the polygyne type, which spreads by budding, to the monogyne which spreads by flight – as a direct result of the program targeting the polygyne type. Biosecurity Queensland has been chasing the wrong ant and making the infestation worse.

Biosecurity Queensland reported it has poured tonnes of expensive, water-sensitive fire ant bait over 287,296 ha of rain-soaked south-east Queensland this treatment season. It did not report how many areas are now fire ant free as a result. The answer is ‘None.’

Biosecurity Queensland reported that the Steering Committee of National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, spent a whole day visiting the program. Not before time.

In June 2021, Dr Craik told ABC radio she did not know how much the program had cost since 2001. It was around $700m and she wanted another $300m. She also said she had only recently come to appreciate the extent of the infestation, but ‘believed’, with no data at all,  that there is ‘a chance’ to eradicate the infestation.

Commonwealth government representative on the Steering Committee, Ms Jo Laduzko, told a Senate Estimates Committee in May 2021 that she did not know how successful the program had been, but believed the program had not allowed it to become worse.  Ms Laduzko knows the program has reported significant infestations beyond the operational area of the program EVERY year. She did admit that there has to be a point where the cost effectiveness of an eradication effort has to be considered.

They visited Wacol where, in 2001, US fire ant experts found the  infestation in the decommissioned mental hospital and women’s jail worse than anything they had seen in the USA. Wacol is still infested with fire ants.

The Steering Committee went to assess the planned remote-sensing surveillance technology, helicopter surveillance technology, for the program. This is the ‘silver bullet’ Biosecurity Queensland has been promising would save the program since 2009. A trial of the technology between 2011 and 2015 found 38 nests while the infestation blew out from 90,000ha to 300,000ha. An expert assessment of the technology in 2018 said the technology cannot distinguish fire ant nests from other warm things in the environment like rocks and cow pats and was identify actual fire ant nests as clumps of soil.

In the meantime, Biosecurity Queensland is relying on the public to detect and report fire ant nests. And they are. In their thousands. And Biosecurity Queensland can’t keep up.

Time for a Royal Commission to hold the Fire Ant Program Steering Committee and all others responsible for this Fire Ant Fiasco to account for one of the worst biosecurity disasters to hit Australia and the waste of over $700m of public money.

18th June 2022