Australia’s border biosecurity system was stretched “close to breaking point” and had “severe impacts on sections of the shipping and exporting industries” during the recent Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) season, the country’s Inspector-General of Biosecurity has reported.
Costs and delays in unloading ships and releasing cargo from biosecurity controls were “significant but unavoidable” because of the need to deal with large numbers of pests.
The BMSB is a serious agricultural pest that can feed on more than 300 different crop and fruiting plants. When it feeds it severely damages the plant, rendering it unsellable. The BMSB likes to hibernate in dark, narrow spaces and, as such, it is particularly well-suited to hitch-hiking in sea freight and across land in cars, trucks, machinery, personal effects, packing crates and so on.
Once back on land, it is a prolific traveler and breeder. BMSB females can fly 5 kilometers (3 U.S. miles) and can each produce hundreds of eggs over their lives. The BMSB originated in north Asia but has infested much of the U.S. (it’s in 43 U.S. states) and is now doing the same in Europe.
Bug incursion: Australia
The scale of the increase in incursions into Australia over the last few years by the BMSB can be seen in the numbers.
In the 2015-2016 season (September to September) there were about 10 incidents involving live bugs and about 14 or 15 the following year, according to the Inspector-General’s report.
But, in 2017-2018, there were just over 30 incidents involving live bugs and in 2018-2019 there were about 55 incidents involving live bugs. From September 1, 2018 until April 10, 2019, a total of 274 BMSB detections (alive and dead) were made in Australia.
A single live detection is a significant event. As FreightWaves has previously reported, just one ship being turned away can incur about US$200,000 in wasted costs. And, on the land side, there can be significant waste and delay as trucking schedules are disrupted.
Strain, delays… systems overwhelmed
Inspector-General Dr. Scott-Orr highlighted a number of areas in which the increased workload led to massive systemic strain and delays for ships and the flow of cargo.
Selection of containers for biosecurity inspection is managed by a “complex software interaction” between different aging computer systems managed by a variety of government departments and agencies. Some of the systems were designed to tackle specific pests, such as the Giant African Snail. These systems were not flexible enough to tackle the challenges also posed by the BMSB.
Unfortunately, these systems were not up to the job of handling the increased workload either. Urgent software patches had to be made but this “interim solution” was “inadequate” to cope with the increased demand. For instance, the biosecurity database of containers that had been marked for release to consignees had to be manually “cleaned” every night to prevent boxes being put back on hold for inspection.
“By late November, the… electronic cargo management systems were overwhelmed,” the report states, which led to a series of rolling outages and “major clearance delays.”
Staff could not understand
Frequent changes in operational policies made assessment of cargo difficult and instructional material was too hard to understand. “Even very experienced staff had difficulty in interpreting guidelines, while temporary staff could not follow instructions,” the report further states.
Times to assess consignments for biosecurity clearance blew out from 15 minutes to “hours.” One 35-person team incurred 7,000 hours of overtime despite external officials being diverted into the team and hiring additional casual staff.
A national telephone call center experienced a 15 percent increase in calls and customs brokers had to wait online for 30 minutes or more per call. Importers reported “significant delays” in reaching officers with “the skills to address any assessment.”
On-ship and on-wharf bio-security inspectors experienced a 20 percent increase in bookings for inspections. That led to a three-fold delay in the time between booking and inspection from three days to 10 days. “Numerous inefficiencies resulted from these delays,” the Inspector-General’s report says.
If live bugs were detected, delays massively increased. Some customs brokers reported wait-times of up to 21 days from the arrival of the ship before cargo was released from customs clearance.
What do we want? An entomologist!
There was also a huge demand for entomologists to visit ships to determine if bugs were freshly dead (which could indicate that live bugs were still aboard) or if the bugs were long-dead (which would likely indicate successful offshore treatment).
Vessels were not permitted to discharge cargo until this could be determined. Although an on-call roster of late-night and weekend entomologists was set up, there were simply not enough insect experts to match industry demands.
Australia’s biosecurity authorities managed to stop a widespread invasion by the BMSB in the last season. But, even as late as April 2019, several border breaches were still under surveillance and management.
Not enough resources
Unfortunately, the near future does not look good. The situation is only going to get worse.
BMSB is a prolific invader and it is continually expanding its geographic range.
Dr. Scott-Orr reports that due to the spread of BMSB, at least 15 percent more cargo will need intervention during the next BMSB season. But the authorities are unlikely to be able to cope with that increase.
“Resourcing is inadequate to meet the BMSB challenge. It is hard to see this changing unless biosecurity funding is improved by removing arbitrary staff caps for cost-recovered and critical assurance and oversight functions. Diversion of resources from other parts of the biosecurity system is not sustainable and will increasingly imperil Australia with risks of other severe pest or disease incursion,” she said.
But it does not look like the resourcing will be made available.
Dr. Scott-Orr reports that the overall staff cap for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for 2019-2020 was set by the Australian Government at 217 people fewer than the total for 2018-19. There had already been a 25 percent drop in front line biosecurity staff between 2013 to 2018.
“These arbitrary staff caps should be removed for cost-recovered and critical biosecurity assurance and oversight,” the Inspector General’s report reads.