Australia: Fall armyworm spreads

ABC News

Fall armyworm spreads 1,000 kilometres south from detection point, dashing eradication hopes

ABC Rural

Eradicating the potentially catastrophic fall armyworm from Australia will likely prove impossible after another detection of the moth, nearly 1,000 kilometres south of its original detection point.

Key points:

  • Biosecurity Queensland says the latest find of fall armyworm, west of Cairns, is a blow to agriculture
  • Director Malcolm Letts says it means the pest, capable of destroying crops, is now established on the mainland of Australia
  • A national biosecurity group will meet on Friday to alert likely affected industries to the risks

Larvae of the insect have been confirmed in a trial maize crop near Georgetown, 300 kilometres west of Cairns, after a University of Queensland (UQ) researcher raised the alarm.

Previously the species had only been found in the Torres Strait region, on the islands of Erub and Saibai, followed by the northernmost mainland town of Bamaga.

Director of Biosecurity Queensland Malcolm Letts said the latest find was a blow to the agriculture sector.

“This is very significant. Basically it means any chances we had to keep the pest out and to eradicate it in the Torres Strait are gone,” he said.

Mr Letts said the next step for biosecurity agencies and farmers was to restrict the moth’s range, by controlling it in affected crops.

Those include economically valuable species such as cotton, wheat, rice, sorghum, sugar cane, and certain fruits and vegetables.

“Given the nature of the pest and the speed that it travels, we anticipate that it’ll move fairly quickly to other parts of Queensland and maybe other parts of Australia,” Mr Letts said.

Preparing for the worst

Biosecurity Queensland is setting up 100 surveillance traps across Queensland to track the bug’s movements and identify new outbreaks.

With a large number of potential hosts for the caterpillars, more information will soon be sent to farmers and agronomists.

“We’re looking to provide information on the host species for this pest, we know it infests more than 350 hosts,” Mr Letts said.

“We need to provide more information to industry in terms of the control treatments they have available to them.”

Control work on the Gilbert River infestation cost UQ $400 per hectare — more than 10 times the usual cost for controlling pests using chemicals.

Three separate applications of the agricultural insecticide spinetoram were sprayed onto the paddock.

Mr Letts said less destructive species of armyworms were already present in Australia and availability of chemical was not critical at this stage.

“At this stage I don’t want to be too alarmist, we’re really only talking about this infestation in one part of Queensland at this time,” he said.

“There’s not an immediate demand for industry to have these chemicals, we’ll track its movement over time to give industry some warning in relation to when it’s approaching their area.”

The Northern Territory executive director of biosecurity, Sarah Corcoran, said the fall armyworm posed a big threat to the NT’s agriculture.

“It’s a matter of time until we expect we might see it in the NT, [now] it’s already been detected in Queensland,” she said.

Trapping has been conducted about the Darwin area in preparation for the insect’s arrival, after the moth reached Timor, 600 kilometres away.

“I think there’s a good number of control mechanisms out there,” Ms Corcoran said.

“Potentially, it may be vulnerable to some of our native species of wasps that would normally attack native species as well.”

Governments to convene

A meeting is planned for Friday, when a national management group will work towards a strategy for the next phase of the incursion.

“We will work fairly closely with the Commonwealth, Northern Territory and WA Governments in the first instance,” Mr Letts said.

Additionally the Department of Agriculture in Queensland will convene a roundtable discussion with affected industries to alert them to the risks.

With a potentially broad range, the spread of the insect could cover most of Australia’s climate zones eventually.

“In [North America] for example, it’s gone all the way up to the Canadian border, so its ability to persist in quite a range of climatic types is very good,” he said.

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