Battle of the bugs
Is the Kiwi tourist boom posing a threat to our other industries?
More than 96,000 air passengers had items seized at the border last year, including 30,000 pairs of grubby shoes, and the Ministry for Primary Industries hired an extra six contract staff at Auckland airport to clean the offending items
While we welcome foreign tourists, we’d much rather they arrived minus bugs, banned food, or other nasties.
Research has shown that on average a single gram of soil from footwear can yield several viable seeds, bacteria, fungi and up to 40 nematodes - microscopic worms that include a large number of plant parasites.
Scientists are taking a closer interest in the biosecurity risks associated with tourism because of the risks to other major export sectors if efforts to stop incursions fail.
Didymo, the unsightly ‘‘rock snot’’ clogging more than 150 New Zealand rivers, may have come here on fishing waders from North America.
The fungal disease myrtle rust identified in Northland in May is believed to have been wind-borne from Australia, but the possibility of spores being transmitted by tourists from areas like Queensland had been discussed in academic circles for some time.
Brown marmorated stink bugs found in Auckland commercial accommodation are believed to have hitched a ride in travellers’ luggage, and if they got established, this smelly pest could potentially devastate exports to the tune of $1.5b a year.
Which is why scientists like Mark McNeill, who has researched soiled footwear, are launching into projects looking at where tourists go in their first week, and the impact of a bio-security awareness programme at the Port of Tauranga.
McNeill says the 180 pairs of shoes they tested carried organisms which would be considered invasive species if they got established, and golf shoes returned the highest counts.
Tourists are highly mobile so contaminated footwear can very quickly end up on golf courses, farms, vineyards and national parks.
’’We’re trying to get some understanding of the tourist flows over the first seven days, where the gaps are in our knowledge and can we improve surveillance in areas where tourists are concentrating perhaps.’’
New Zealand spends $248m annually on biosecurity, and a new border clearance levy introduced last year costs each arriving air passenger $18 ($22 for cruise passengers).
Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) director of border clearance services Steve Gilbert says over the summer undeclared seizures were up 12 per cent.
‘‘Four years ago we had about 340 frontline quarantine inspectors, by December going into summer we will have close to 550.’’
Up to 18,000 international travellers a day pass through Auckland airport in peak season, and changing traveller demographics are a challenge.
‘‘There has been a significant increase in passengers from India and they bring in a lot of food,’’ says Gilbert.
US and Canadian traveller numbers are also well up. ’’We see them as a real threat because a lot of them come out here for tenting or camping holidays, and they’re coming from from places where brown marmorated stink bugs are rife.’’
Gilbert declined to reveal the top five high risk passport holders by country. He says Japanese tend stick to the rules, and with other nationalities compliance is higher amongst those aged 40 to 70, but lower in 18 to 25-year-olds.
Cruise numbers have exploded with more than 500,000 passengers and crew expected next season, and most cruise lines have signed up to MPI’s new accreditation system.
By meeting strict rules about produce and stores, and giving passengers biosecurity warnings before they disembark, cruise ships only have to go through passenger screening at their first port of call during a voyage around New Zealand.
Practical steps include agreeing not to serve whole fruit the night before berthing so passengers don’t take it ashore for a snack.
Gilbert says the results last year were promising - out of 152,000 passengers, 382 had items seized and the rate was lower on accredited vessels
Targeted gangway inspections have dropped by a third, freeing up border staff to work in higher risk areas, such as checking cargo vessels for stink bugs.
Unaccredited cruise lines still face inspections at every port and Gilbert says they may be charged extra to cover the costs of sending staff to remote places such as Stewart Island.
It’s a fine balance between avoiding long processing queues at the border and maintaining biosecurity standards, and MPI is also cautiously considering allowing more passengers to bypass X-ray screening if they are considered low risk.
At present only New Zealand and Australian passport holders can use the Green Lane, but Gilbert said it could be opened up to long standing residents with overseas passports.
That worries Forest Owners Association biosecurity manager Bill Dyck because he says there are plenty of Australian pests and diseases that could end up here, including the marmorated stink bug if it became established across the Tasman.
‘‘It’s like a war. You want to keep the enemies as far away as you can and when they get into the country next door, it’s getting a little too late.’’
Golfers are also on Dyck’s radar because those who play on foreign courses dotted with pine trees could conceivably bring pine pitch canker here on their shoes or gear, and he is keen that post-border surveillance of pests is maintained.
About 7000 annual inspections are carried out on trees in highrisk areas around airports, ports, cargo facilities and popular tourist spots such as the Auckland Domain and the Queenstown gondola station. MPI says about two to five ‘‘exotic organisms’’ are found each year and dealt with.
Biosecurity manager for Horticulture New Zealand Richard Palmer says everyone has a role to play in maintaining biosecurity and the tourism industry is starting to understand the importance of protecting our native estate.
’’It’s the classic tension between ease of travel and doing the right thing every time. If you don’t speak English, or where you come from a rule is just something to be disobeyed, you bring this combination of factors together, and it makes it very difficult to get the right outcome.’’
Tourism Export Council chair Anna Black says inbound tourism operators are trying to educate travellers about biosecurity prior to their arrival, because as well as protecting the country’s clean, green image, it avoids delays at the border.
Gilbert says efforts to educate international visitors are working and a survey at the four major airports showed almost 99 per cent of passengers going through biosecurity checks were compliant. ‘‘So people are more aware.’’
The explosion in cruise ship visits to New Zealand has prompted a new system for dealing with potential biosecurity risks.
More sniffer dogs are being trained as tourist numbers grow.