The perils and prevention of invasive species

Australia is facing a “sliding doors” moment when it comes to invasive species, according to a new report by the CSIRO and Centre for Invasive Species (CISS).

Invasive species have done vast damage to Australia’s ecology and economy over the past century. The impact of things like cane toads and the current mouse plague are well-known, but invasive species have been destructive in many subtler ways as well.

Pests and weeds have driven 79 (confirmed) native species to extinction, and over the past six decades, Australia is (at a conservative estimate) $390 billion poorer.

These numbers are on the climb. The report estimates that a new weed is introduced to Australia every 18 days, and pests and weeds are currently costing the economy $25 billion a year – a number that will rise.

Photograph of mexican poppies growing in the pilbara's red desert.
Impacts of climate change can be seen in the Pilbara region where Mexican poppies grow freely. Credit: Bruce Webber

The good news is that the technology and knowledge exists to limit, and even eliminate, invasive species. With the right investments and actions now, according to the report, the havoc of pests and weeds can be hugely reduced over the coming decades.

According to report co-author Andreas Glanznig, chief executive of the CISS, Australia has a track record of managing invasive species well when there’s proper investment.

“Australia has been a world leader, for example, in biocontrol technology,” says Glanznig.

He points out that rabbit biocontrol measures – like myxomatosis and calicivirus – have saved the agricultural sector roughly $70 billion over the past 60 years.

“The same applies for the benefits from weed biocontrol. You’ve got some classic examples like prickly pear […] In total the weed biocontrol agents have contributed over $10 billion worth of increased agricultural productivity.

“So we’re used to thinking big and really backing technology to deliver those large-scale outcomes.”

Other emerging technologies – like environmental DNA sampling, digital sensing and genetic control – are being used to fight other threats.

Technology aside, there’s also work for individuals to do: firstly, to follow biosecurity measures when they’re entering the country, and to be responsible pet owners.

Close up photo of a fox's face
Native animals are easy prey for foxes after a bush fire. Credit: Lucca Amorim

“Prevention will be much cheaper and more effective than trying to control the spread of pests and weeds once they are established,” says report co-author Dr Andy Sheppard, a CSIRO scientist.

Work can also be done to improve biosecurity monitoring at airports.

Citizen science and community monitoring projects can also be used to collate huge amounts of valuable ecological data.

“There’s a real opportunity to empower network communities,” says Glanznig.

One example is the Weeds ID app they’re currently developing, which will use AI to identify weeds.

“If it’s a priority weed, it will alert the authorities if it’s a biosecurity risk,” says Glanznig.

With the right investment in technology and public outreach, the report states that it’s possible to avert a biodiversity crisis.

“We need to back Australian know-how to continue to deliver the technologies to try and keep weed and pest problems in check, and ideally, push back on those problems,” says Glanznig.

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