Media: 'Fire ants here forever. Eradication never feasible.' Dr Pam Swepson, interview with Peter Gleeson 4BC Drive 23rd January 2024.

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Ex National Fire Ant Program Community Liaison and Policy Officer, Dr Pam Swepson, joined Peter Gleeson on 4BC Drive to discuss the latest outbreak at a rugby club in Redland Bay.  She said the way forward is for proper funding to be given to State Governments and for professionals to be put in charge of handling the treatment of fire ants.

Peter Gleeson: Now, if you are a regular listener to the show, you’ll know that I’ve covered the unfolding fire ant emergency extensively and I got to say, it’s gotten out of hand. We passed that point twenty years ago and we now face this incredibly difficult task of stopping them.

Fire Ant Furner, the Agriculture Minister, he’s asleep at the wheel. There’s been another outbreak that shows how badly we’ve dropped the ball. Today it’s been reported that the Redland Cyclones’ Rugby Club on the Bay has been forced to shut their Charlie Buckler playing fields because fire ants were detected. January 4th they were detected. Biosecurity Queensland is now working with Redlands City Council to remove them.

Now someone who knows all about what’s at stake here is Dr Pam Swepson who exposed the failures of the fire ant eradication program in 2003. She joins me now. Pam, thanks for your time.

Pam Swepson: You’re very welcome, Peter.

PG       Were you surprised by the news today at the rugby club outbreak?

PS        Not at all.

PG       Why is that?

PS        Peter, there’s not a scrap of scientific evidence it was ever feasible to eradicate a well-entrenched infestation of fire ants found in Brisbane in 2001. Not a scrap. American advice at the time was to tightly contain it and bait to suppress it. But the politics of that, Peter, are that the national funding formula, by the Commonwealth and the other States, will fund a jurisdiction with an infestation 100% if they run an eradication program, and Queensland’s contribution to one would be just 10%.  But if Queensland decided to follow the scientific advice and run a fire ant containment and suppression program, Queensland would have to put in 100% of the funding.  So, guess what they did?

PG       Hmm

PS        So the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program has pumped an awful lot of money, about $1b spent so far, into Queensland and Queensland has only put in 10% of that. The rest of it comes from the other States and Territories.  I have to say it started with the Labor government but also the LNP government, against my advice, jumped onto the same program. So, we’ve been running an unscientific, expensive eradication program which has resulted in the infestation now being twenty time worse. They wound back any containment efforts.  There was a review in 2019 which was highly critical of the program not using its regulatory powers to control the movement of soil etc. I don’t know about the football club, but sporting clubs in Logan and in Ipswich have become infested. If they’ve done top-dressing that brought soil or mulch in from other places, its likely it was infested, because we run almost NO containment programs. The government created the Biosecurity Obligation which means it is up to the general public or developers to make sure they don’t spread fire ants, but there has been no regulation. The major cause of fire ant spread and heavy infestations in areas like Ipswich, Gold Coast, Logan has been the major development sites which create natural habitat for fire ants to infest and also bring in soil or mulch etc from infested areas.  So the fact that Redlands football club is now infested is totally expected.

PG       Pam, Biosecurity Queensland recently committed an additional $37.5m to treat fire ants in South East Queensland. I’ve heard figures bandied about that we need at least ten times that amount to even attempt to get this under control.

PS        The treatment is not the issue. You’ve got to stop them moving in the first place.

PG       And how do we do that?

PS        The program has finally started to have some biosecurity inspectors brought on board. The major cause of fire ant spread are truck and trailer loads of soil, mulch etc (from infested areas). That is likely how the infestations in New South Wales got there.  Movement controls are absolutely the first thing you have to do. Then in terms of treatment – I mean there are two sorts of treatment programs – there is broadcast baiting which the Americans recommend and then there is individual nest injections. Nest injections likely cause nests to split and spread so the Americans don’t recommend that as a first course of action.

So what we need, what Redlands needs, is proper pest managers down there to broadcast bait the area and areas around it, because, we and they, are going to be doing this forever now Peter.

PG       Sorry, say it again.

PS        Fire ants are here forever.

PG       Right.

PS        They’re here forever. We need to start thinking about how we manage this in the long term – like what the American’s have been doing for decades. It’s going to be up to property owners, or hopefully, with the assistance of government, to treat our places with a broadcast bait every six to twelve months to suppress it because we are never going to eradicate it. There was never a chance we were going to eradicate them and now we have to face the fact they are here forever and we have to start managing them.

PG       That’s a really dire warning, isn’t it? That they are here forever.  Was there ever a chance, if we’d have gone in early Pam? Could we have stopped this?

PS        No. American experts said they were here for at least a decade before they were found. I saw a nest back in 2001 that was half a metre high. They get much bigger than that. We never had a chance. It’s been a joke to pretend that we did. It was too advanced. It was too entrenched to try to eradicate. If we had done the tight containment program and suppression program when the infestation was about 40,000ha – what the American’s recommended we do, we would have it much more controlled. It’s now twenty times worse.

It is a joke to be running around throwing bait all over the place – willy nilly.  There has been no systematic application of bait. They’ve been putting a lot of stuff down, but it’s been a really haphazard baiting program. And no containment. And also no surveillance. There is no systematic way of knowing where the fire ants are. The program relies on the public reporting random nests. Or they put up helicopters that identify rocks and cow pats as fire ant nests and miss actual nests.

We never had a chance. I would argue that the twenty years of this program, without proper regulation of movement of high-risk materials has made the infestation twenty times worse. I would blame the program, managed by both sides of politics in Queensland, with support of the federal government, made the infestation twenty times worse and the Australian public are now going to have to wear it – forever.

PG       Pam, what you’re essentially saying here is, and correct me if I’m wrong here, but the narrative I’m hearing from you is that twenty years of incompetency, making the wrong calls, based on budgetary decision making has effectively consigned this country and south-east Queensland in particular, to a program of fire ants that is going to cause severe impacts. What are the long-term impacts of a fire ant infestation here in south-east Queensland.

PS        Can I just wind back here and say who is responsible for this. It’s a national program, oversighted by a Steering Committee, chaired by someone from the federal department with representatives from every State and Territory.  This is the committee that is responsible for the program. They’re responsible for setting targets, for reviewing it. Audits of that committee, particularly the last one in 2019 have been scathing.

We have to start looking at how the Americans have been managing fire ants. The Americans have, what we have never had, is movement controls. They have quarantine. They have restrictions on high-risk products. They have to be inspected before they are moved from State to State. We have never done that.

There was a meeting of industry representative in about 2017 at a Community Forum. They said they were willing to accept their Biosecurity Obligation to not move fire ants but they said they wanted the government to do their bit too: by inspecting properties, by controlling the movement of high-risk materials, inspecting flea markets, approving property develop plans – that sort of thing.  

PG   Hmm

PS   There used to be voluntary risk management plans for companies audited by the inspectors. They were abandoned.

PG. We dropped the ball badly,

PS   We never dropped the ball, we never picked it up.

PG    We never picked it up. We’re running out of time, Pam, I want to ask you one quick question before we go. OK, you’re internationally recognised in this area, if you headed up that committee, what would you do in the next 3 to 5 years to try and get this manageable? What’s the answer?

PS   The answer is, and I recommended it to Minister Watt when he was here in Brisbane last year was to fund the states to contain it. And to give it to local councils that have Invasive Species plans. Those organisations are closer to the ground. Fund them properly. Employ a lot of skilled biosecurity inspectors. I mean the program’s being run by unskilled workers, hundreds and hundreds of unskilled workers from recruitment agencies. You have to have proper, technically skilled people running the program.

I am saying, get the Commonwealth and the other States to fund the local councils to run proper containment and regular and PROPER baiting programs – not this willy-nilly throwing bait around.  Proper movement controls, proper baiting programs, run by local councils.

PG         OK. Pam Swepson, really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us on 4BC Drive.

PS        Thanks for the opportunity, Peter.

PG   No worries.  There she is, Dr Pam Swepson. Now she exposed the failure of the fire ant eradication program in 2003. So, that’s what, 21 years ago and she painted a pretty dire picture there, didn’t she. She basically said we put the white flag up on this. We had a window, a very small window, to try and ensure it was kept under control and now its twenty times worse than what it could have been because governments of all political persuasions, have not only dropped the ball on this, as she said, they never picked the ball up at all. Absolutely incredible.