Second Reading – Biological Control Amendment Bill 2016

Monday, 14 March 2016

Mr PITT (HinklerAssistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister) (17:12): I rise to speak on the Biological Control Amendment Bill 2016, which is an important piece of legislation to both the agricultural industry and, of course, the environment. The bill is intended to clarify the definition of an ‘organism’ to specifically include viruses and sub-viral agents due to ongoing scientific debate as to whether a virus can be classified as an organism and as a living entity. Because viruses are incapable of reproducing without a host, the majority scientific viewpoint at this time is that they are not organisms. Some scientists, however, consider a virus to be an organism, and biological science, by its very nature, is constantly evolving in light of new knowledge and evidence. The amendments will provide greater certainty for stakeholders who research, deliver and benefit from biological control programs, including scientists, farmers, land managers and the community.

It is important to reflect on the important role that biological control plays in managing pests in Australia. Right now, pests are doing enormous damage to our flora and fauna. Feral cats are wiping out entire species, feral dogs are destroying livestock and feral pigs may well be eating to extinction our sea turtle eggs and hatchlings and, of course, the loggerhead turtle in my region. Mon Repos Beach, one of only two loggerhead nesting locations in the world, is right in the middle of my electorate. The turtle eggs and hatchlings are under threat not only from feral pigs but also from foxes. Between 2014 and 2015, foxes were responsible for the loss of around 66 per cent of turtle clutches on some beaches along the Woongarra coastline. The joint state and federal program, called the Nest to Ocean Turtle Protection Program, is providing $7 million over four years to help with fox detection work. In November last year 65 new fox dens were identified, with the use of fox-detection dogs, the Dob in a Fox campaign and searching targeted areas.

In Australia feral animals typically have few natural predators or fatal diseases and some have high reproductive rates. As a result their populations are not naturally diminished, and they can multiply rapidly if conditions are favourable. Feral animals impact on native species through predation, competition for food and shelter, destruction of habitat and the spreading of disease. They can also cause soil erosion. While domestic livestock can be removed from degraded areas until these areas are revegetated, it is much more difficult to keep feral animals out of these same areas. Feral animals can carry the same common diseases as domestic animals and are a source of reinfection of wildlife and livestock, which works against efforts to control costly diseases such as tuberculosis. Feral animals are also potential carriers of other animal diseases and parasites. It could be disastrous for our environment if there was, for example, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease or rabies in Australia.

It is not only feral animals that are a risk. There are strict biosecurity requirements in place to protect Australia from exotic pests and diseases that could seriously harm humans, animals and our economy—and for good reason. Let’s look at the case of Johnny Depp’s dogs Boo and Pistol, for example. They arrived in Australia on a private jet and did not meet the import requirements. Dogs imported into Australia must be accompanied by a valid import permit. They have to undergo relevant testing and health checks and be signed off by a government veterinarian from the exporting country to ensure pests and diseases from overseas are not brought here. Dogs can potentially carry a range of diseases, including rabies. Rabies is not present in Australia, but it can seriously affect some people.

It appears that there are no hard feelings. When Mr Depp was asked at the recent Grammy Awards if he ‘still loves us in Australia’, his answer was: ‘Of course, I love Australia. I think that guy, Barnaby, invited me to stay at his house for some reason.’ If Mr Depp does decide to visit the Deputy Prime Minister in New England, I would also urge him to consider popping in to Woodgate, Bargara or Buxton. I would certainly love to show him around. If our good friend Mr Depp needs a formal invitation, I am very happy to write to him on the Deputy Prime Minister’s behalf and to invite him back to Australia to visit some of our cultural areas.

While it would be great if we could rid the whole country of these invasive pests, this is just not achievable in many cases. But there are a number of methods available to control feral animals. These methods include conventional control techniques such as trapping, baiting, fencing and shooting—and, of course, there is biological control. Biological control has been successfully used in the past and is an important tool for controlling pests and weeds and mitigating their impact on the economy, the environment and the community. Biocontrol agents can be bacteria, fungi, viruses or predatory organisms such as insects. They are highly specific and usually found in the native home range of the invasive species. Biocontrol is a cost-effective solution for managing invasive species and generally does not require reapplication once established, unlike chemicals or poisons.

Probably one of the most well-known, successful uses of biological control in Australia was the release of the myxoma virus, which causes myxomatosis. In the 1920s rabbit populations had got completely out of hand and rose to more than 10 billion across the country. Rabbits are absolutely detrimental to our environment, and their introduction to Australia was an absolute disaster. The release in 1950 of the myxoma virus—the world’s first vertebrate pest biocontrol—killed 99.8 per cent of infected rabbits. Since its introduction resistance to myxomatosis has grown, and in 1996 the calicivirus was released. The combined viruses have contained wild rabbit populations to about 15 per cent of their potential numbers.

Without these biological agents controlling the rabbit population it would be a very different story. The annual cost to agriculture alone would be in excess of $2 billion, and, even with the biological control, rabbits are causing more than $200 million in production losses every single year. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that the cost of agricultural production losses attributed to pest animals was more than $620 million in 2009. A 2004 study estimated that the agricultural cost of weeds to be nearly $4 billion per annum.

Let’s not forget that it is critical that the biological control agents introduced into Australia do not become pests themselves. The classic case of this is the cane toad. Cane toads were introduced into Australia in 1935 as a means of controlling pest beetles in the sugarcane industry. Since then the cane toads’ range has expanded through Australia’s northern landscape, and they are moving west at an estimated 40 to 60 kilometres per year. Cane toads reached Brisbane in 1945, the Iron Range on the Cape York Peninsula by 1983 and the tip of the cape by 1994. By 1995 their westward expansion had reached the Roper River in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. By March 2001 they had reached Kakadu National Park, and in February 2009 cane toads crossed the Western Australian border with the Northern Territory—over 2,000 kilometres from the site they were released 74 years earlier. To the south, cane toads were introduced to Byron Bay in 1965 and then spread to Yamba and Port Macquarie on the north coast of New South Wales in 2003.

Cane toads have an array of highly toxic chemical defences available to them at almost all stages of their lives. The toxins occur in their skin and organs and can be secreted by large glands at the back of the animal’s head when it is threatened. As a result, toads will poison many predators that attempt to eat them. Although some may recover, many individual predators die when they are first exposed to cane toads, and populations soon start to decline. Unfortunately, there is no broadscale way to control cane toads, but scientists are developing a better understanding of the impacts they are having on the environment and the ways in which assets, such as rare and vulnerable wildlife, can be protected.

This bill does not change the existing basic scientific, technical or safety standards that are applied to biological control. Considerable testing is done prior to the release of biological control agents to ensure that they will not pose a threat to non-target species such as native and agricultural plants.

There are some great examples of biological control used to fight other pests such as prickly pear and Paterson’s curse. In the 1920s the cactoblastis moth was used to control prickly pear which was, at the time, smothering large tracts of north-east Australia and spreading rapidly each year. Prickly pear is thought to have been introduced as early as 1788 and had spread to Chinchilla by 1843. The larvae of the cactoblastis moth eat the leaves and seed pods of the prickly pear. The release and spread of cactoblastis moth in Australia virtually destroyed the prickly pear population. A massive 24 million hectares of densely infested land was brought back into production after the moth was introduced. Remaining prickly pear infestations are now manageable using traditional chemical and physical techniques.

In my electorate of Hinkler a tiny wasp has been utilised to help save the iconic pandanus trees on Fraser Island. According to the Burnett Mary Regional Group, the island’s pandanus trees have been devastated in recent years by Jamella, a small leaf-hopper insect. The leaf-hoppers were accidentally introduced to southern Queensland in the early 1990s via an infected plant from north Queensland. The predatory wasp did not survive the same journey, giving the leaf-hoppers an unchecked head start on the southern pandanus populations. The pandanus leaf-hopper sucks the pandanus sap from the leaf sheaths and exudes honeydew. This sugary substance encourages the growth of mould, and the terminal growth points of the leaves then rot, especially if the trees are already stressed by other environmental factors.

But the release of a sandfly sized native wasp in October last year at several locations on the island, as well as in Bundaberg, was the first stage of rescuing these iconic plants. The wasp lays its eggs in the leafhoppers’ egg rafts, where immature wasps eat the developing Jamella, and it has been successfully used in the northern part of the state. Treatment of pandanus affected by the leafhopper has historically been through stem injection pesticide treatment. This is reasonably successful but extremely onerous, and it is difficult to access all plants in coastal areas.

It is important to touch on what could happen if this bill is not passed. There are a number of future opportunities to use viruses to control damaging pests such as the common carp. The bill supports the pending national release of a new strain of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus or RHDV—known as K5—for the biological control of wild rabbits. The K5 release is proposed for spring 2016 and is part of a $4.4 million national program funded by governments and industry, including $1.2 million of Australian government funding. A considerable amount of planning, research, development and community consultation is required prior to the release of K5. If the bill is not passed, it may impact state and territory governments, landholders and community groups who have prepared for a spring 2016 release, and it may also lead to additional costs for program partners. The benefit-cost ratio of the calicivirus program is estimated to be 563 to one.

The bill, if passed, may also be used to authorise the proposed national release of Cyprinid herpesvirus for the control of the common carp. Through the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Australian scientists have determined that the naturally occurring carp herpes offers a genuine option for the biological control of carp. Following seven years of testing, scientists are confident that the virus is specific to carp and does not cause diseases in other species, including Australian native fish, birds and amphibians. Planning for a potential release of carp herpes is underway and the environmental, economic and social benefits of successful biological control of carp are likely to be considerable.

This bill is an important step in being able to continue to fight pests and weeds in Australia with biological control. I commend the bill to the House.

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