Bat­tle of the bugs

Is the Kiwi tourist boom pos­ing a threat to our other in­dus­tries?

Sunday Star-Times - - BUSINESS - by Amanda Cropp

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.’’

MONIQUE FORD

The ex­plo­sion in cruise ship vis­its to New Zealand has prompted a new sys­tem for deal­ing with po­ten­tial biose­cu­rity risks.

PHIL DOYLE

More snif­fer dogs are be­ing trained as tourist num­bers grow.

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