Fire ants are threatening northern NSW and central Queensland and the current eradication program is not up to the job, according to a recent government report. A senate motion by Greens senator Janet Rice forced the federal government to release an independent review of the eradication program revealing that it is failing to contain the fire ant threat.
‘Red fire ants have the potential to do more damage that rabbits, cane toads, foxes, camels, wild dogs and feral cats combined,’ said Senator Rice.
‘The minister has sat on this independent review since at least May of this year and has failed to take proper action. When the benefit will be at least $25 for every $1 spent, it’s a no-brainer to take the necessary and cost-effective action to eradicate the red fire ant.’
The South American fire ants were first detected in Brisbane in 2001 and are believed to have been accidentally introduced, possibly via a shipping container from the US. The fire ant is considered a serious threat to the environment, agriculture, tourism and the outdoor Australian lifestyle as they inhabit open grassland area such as agricultural fields and sports and picnic grounds.
Known to prey upon local wildlife including frogs, snakes and ground-dwelling birds, the ants will clear the area where they nest of local wildlife and could cause the extinction of some ground-dwelling animals.
‘They are highly aggressive, sting en masse and in high numbers,’ said Andrew Cox of the Invasive Species Council.
International studies reveal that without an effective eradication strategy the overall impact on Australia’s agricultural industry would ‘result in a reduction in agricultural output of ten per cent for cropping, 20 per cent for livestock and 40 per cent for beef.’
According to the independent review of Australia’s $330 million fire ants eradication program this would have immediate effect on Queensland’s Lockyer Valley and scenic rim farming communities where fire ants are already present in low numbers.
Fruit pickers and other agricultural workers would be significantly affected by the ant colonies. They can also cause the death of small livestock animals such as calves and lambs owing to the aggressive swarming and attacking nature of the ants. Where fire ants are located in paddocks farmers would be unable to graze livestock and would have the added costs of eradication of the ants in these areas, noted Cox.
The sting causes painful burning and itching in humans and in rare cases can cause a severe allergic reaction. ‘If not eradicated, by 2030 fire ants will cost our healthcare system about 140,000 medical consultations and 3,000 anaphylactic reactions each year and possible deaths.’
A spokesperson for the minister of agriculture and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, said, ‘The Agricultural Ministers’ Forum has agreed with the findings of the independent review that eradication remains technically feasible, cost-beneficial and in the national interest.’
However, the deputy prime minister’s office refused to take responsibility for not releasing the report stating: ‘The decision to release the independent review report is not up to the deputy prime minister and is a decision for Commonwealth, state and territory agricultural ministers.’
The ants have been detected in Port Botany, southeast Queensland and the Gold Coast. ‘This secret government report shows eradication is still possible and in our nation’s interest but the time to act is rapidly diminishing,’ Cox said. The report states that a ten-year treatment and surveillance program with a budget of $38 million each year is needed to eradicate the invasion.
Headed for NSW
‘The fire ant can be spread through the movement of soil, plants and hay,’ said Cox. ‘Naturally, they move about two kilometres per year. They could get to the border [of NSW] within five years and if they make it that far they will be there forever.’
‘State and federal governments need to stop sitting on their hands while red fire ants threaten Queensland’s precious natural areas,’ said Australian Greens deputy leader and senator for Queensland, Larissa Waters.
‘Get on with eradication already.’
- For more information on fire ants, the NSW hotline is 1800 084 881 or visit dpi.nsw.gov.au/biosecurity.