Failure to contain a destructive species would impact “every aspect of Australian life”, but the Invasive Species Council says it is just one of many threats Australia is unprepared for.
The recent discovery of red fire ants just kilometre outside the biosecurity zone in South East Queensland has sparked concern that efforts to eradicate the species have come too late.
A nest was discovered in Anthony, a Scenic Rim village where ants were not previously known to inhabit.
Invasive Species Council chief executive officer Andrew Cox said the vicious pest could potentially cost the country billions each year and destroy aspects of life that many take for granted.
“Things like sitting around in your back yard, going to parks, camping… fire ants bite on mass and people can be hospitalised from an attack,” Mr Cox said.
Fire ants also pose a serious threat to Queensland’s agricultural industry, known to kill young calves and poultry and attack agricultural workers.
Failure to contain the pest could cost the country billions based on studies of infested parts of America.
“If we had prioritised this a lot earlier and not waited so long to fund it properly we could have been in a much better position,” Mr Cox said.
A $411 million injection of federal and state government funding to eradicate red fire ants over 10 years began last year, but Mr Cox said the effects were still waiting to be seen.
“It might sound like a lot of money but this is a very cheap program in the perspective of things,” he said.
“If we spend the money now we can make a one-off investment and avoid Australia having to suffer if it is allowed to spread.”
Imported arrivals of fire ants have been reported for the past four years.
More to the problem than ants
But Mr Cox said there were about 20 other biosecurity threats that state and federal governments were failing to address.
A number of these were invasive species.
“At the moment there is really no concerted effort at the states and federal levels to address feral deer,” he said.
“If we don’t address that now, the modelling shows it could potentially occupy the whole of the country and that could cost us billions.”
Granite Belt farmer Sam Ricca said proliferating herds of wild deer were destroying his capsicum farm in Ballandeen.
“You probably see more deer out this way than kangaroos and they are breeding at a phenomenal rate,” he said.
“They are coming right on to the property and right up to your house.”
A discussion paper released by the Invasive Pest Council on Monday details Australia’s “failure” to address biosecurity threats through providing funding and enacting legislation.
Mr Cox said the paper highlights the government’s unwillingness to systematically list the threats and to address associated risks.
A number of major biosecurity threats are either not listed or have no abatement plans in place.
The country also lacks a plan to address new foreign species when they arrive in Australia.
“We have to get smarter about how we address these things or we risk spending a lot of money in the future,” Mr Cox said.
Mr Cox said the program to eradicate fire ants was the largest pest management strategy currently being undertaken in Australia.
“I am hoping it is successful and will be a world first to eradicate such a large threat species,” he said.
“Fire ants are a problem that is rapidly expanding across the world and we hope this can offer hope to other countries.”
But he said a concerted effort by everyone was needed.
“Everyone in Australia needs to keep an eye out for these ants. If we are not vigilant enough and people spread it through transport and human relocation… that’s what really scares me.”
A spokeswoman from the Department of the Environment and Energy said process for dealing with established biosecurity threats provides for a wider range of responses than just developing threat abatement plans.
“This broad, umbrella-like, listing provides for significant flexibility to address biosecurity threats efficiently,” she said.