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Find-A-Pest: biosecurity systems play crucial role in sustaining health of NZ primary sector

‘No matter the border defenses, something will make it through at some point’

This article was supplied by Timber and Forestry e-News, issue 687 , written by Michael Smith

New Zealand has one of the world’s strongest biosecurity systems, backed by the natural advantage of isolation. We invest heavily in the system because of our economic reliance on primary industries, which are at significant risk from new pests and diseases.

With that in mind, Timber & Forestry enews talked with Dr Steve Pawson, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, and project lead of Find-A-Pest – a new app in the country’s biosecurity arsenal.

Dr Pawson’s research interests include forest entomology, invasive species, biosecurity and biodiversity – and often involve the use of new technologies for active surveillance, response and eradication.

He says we have to accept that trade (and tourism when it returns) always comes with risk. “No matter the border defenses, something will make it through at some point. But early detection increases the number of tools available to deal with the problem, and dramatically increases the chances of eradicating it.”

Dr Pawson and Dr Jon Sullivan (ecology lecturer at Lincoln University) conceived the idea of Find-A-Pest as a collaborative network of people helping to improve biosecurity surveillance. Both had worked with ‘citizen science’ initiatives and knew the potential of inviting people to contribute observations and identifications to help strengthen the biosecurity system.

Previously, reporting existing pests, or new pests entering at our borders, was fragmented. “The

main pathway for general surveillance reporting was to contact the Ministry for

Primary Industries. There were a few apps and web forms for individual species, but no simple, coordinated method for clear identification and collection of data.

Dr Steve Pawson - early detection increases the number of tools available to deal with biosecurity issues.

“The idea of Find-A-Pest was to create a single point of entry that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of industry or region. By harnessing the collective mahi [work] of citizen scientists we’re able to develop an in-depth database of up-to- date information on pests and diseases, and their spread and concentration across New Zealand.“

The initial project was developed at Scion (in collaboration with Lincoln University), with funding received from the Biological Heritage National Science Challenges, and regional councils via the Environlink Fund. Early commercial support came from the Forest Owners Association, Zespri, Kiwifruit Vine Health, and Biosecurity New Zealand.

Feedback from a five- month trial – undertaken in cooperation with the plantation forestry and kiwifruit industries, and three local government agencies – informed further development of the app.

Dr Pawson says Find-A-Pest (available on both the Android and Apple platforms) has

its own database and front end, but uses a very close association with the iNaturalist NZ platform.

“We’re able to manage users and their observations, and make use of iNaturalist NZ’s small army of volunteer identifiers,” he said.

The app is now set to play a crucial role in maintaining the health of New Zealand’s horticultural industries, and its natural and production forests. “There are a few high-profile things that we’re worried about – for example, pine processionary moths, bark beetles, and pathogens like pine pitch canker and western gall rust,” Dr Pawson said.

The Find-A-Pest app can be used by anyone, anywhere to contribute to the database of pest knowledge in New Zealand.

“However, recent work by Dr Rebecca Turner from Scion indicates that we have to be very careful about our ‘current threats’. She determined that in the period 2000-2017 we had just over 71,000 interceptions at the border. Almost half were identified to a species level … and 47% have only ever been seen once.”

Dr Pawson says we shouldn’t just focus on lists of expected arrivals – so-called poster-child threats like the brown marmorated stink bug. “Clearly we do need to be concerned about them, but we also need people to understand there’s a huge number of other things out there,” he said.

Find-A-Pest’s region and sector-based fact sheets will help people to understand existing pest species in their area, and to notice when something novel may appear.


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