Port biosecurity program nationally recognised

Department of Transport senior regional officer Garry Wilson, Southern Ports Esperance environment manager Alex Leonard and Southern Ports Esperance environmental advisor Catherine Field holding the specially-designed marine growth device at the Taylor Street Jetty. Photo: Jesinta Burton.
Department of Transport senior regional officer Garry Wilson, Southern Ports Esperance environment manager Alex Leonard and Southern Ports Esperance environmental advisor Catherine Field holding the specially-designed marine growth device at the Taylor Street Jetty. Photo: Jesinta Burton.

A state-wide marine surveillance program involving Esperance Port and Bandy Creek Boat Harbour has been recognised at the national Biosecurity Awards.

The State-Wide Array Surveillance Program, launched by the state government back in 2013, is an early detection and response program to help identify invasive marine pests that may have reached Australian waters in the ballast water or on the hulls of vessels.

The program is a collaborative effort, coordinated by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and assisted by 11 of the state's ports as well as the Department of Transport.

With more than 9,600 vessels visits and 119 cruise ships stopping at WA ports last financial year, Ports Minister Alannah MacTiernan said ports were the front line of defence to help protect the state from unwanted pests and diseases.

Minister MacTiernan said the program set a new benchmark for marine biosecurity, and the national award was recognition of the hard work to make biosecurity a priority.

Esperance Port and Bandy Creek Harbour have participated in the program for six years, capturing samples in specially-designed marine growth devices before sending them off for DNA sequencing.

Southern Ports Esperance environment manager Alex Leonard said the work had been highly rewarding and was invaluable to the local ecology.

"We’re really stoked that the program has been recognised and is making a difference in detecting marine pests and reducing the risk of marine pests becoming established," he said.

"We need this program, it's closed a huge gap.

"The most rewarding part, for me, is having something in place when there was a huge hole there before.

"The only early detect we’ve found is a sea squirt, a northern species which didn’t become established because it dies off in winter and the waters are too cold down here.

"The collaboration with other ports has been great because it’s provided a consistent approach in terms of detecting the pest.

"The program is being taken up in the eastern states now as well.

"It’s great to see that something is being done about a very difficult problem because it can have a huge impact on the fisheries and the local ecology."

Mr Leonard's colleague, Southern Ports Esperance environmental advisor Catherine Field, echoed his sentiments and said the number of vessels entering the port from across the globe meant there was reasonable risk.

“Here we have a reasonable risk because we are getting 200 vessels a year on average, several of which are international vessels taking the iron ore back to China and moving through Asia," she said.

“There are a number of different crab species and mussels that we could get, including the Asian green mussel, and there are various seaweeds and kelps.

“While what we’re doing here seems relatively low tech, they’ve actually modified the program over a number of years and have now got next generation sequencing.

"It uses DNA technology, where they take our samples and test that DNA to pick up what actual marine life is growing in the area.

"They have the pest codes that they can compare against and get matches.

“We do sampling in summer and winter and we also do a shoreline search where we look along these beaches near the port and near Bandy Creek. 

"It’s not a big time commitment - it will take us about an hour to put them out and a couple of hours to pull them up and send the samples.

"Given the small amount of time, it’s worth the effort."

Mrs Field said the program meant WA was leading the way in marine biosecurity and commended the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, the participating ports and the Department of Transport on the proactive partnership.

Department of Transport senior regional officer Garry Wilson said the collaborative approach meant all vessels across the region were covered.

“We participate in the program at Bandy Creek Boat Harbour," he said.

"We have a number of smaller vessels that come into the State and this is their first port.

"We have the ships covered and the smaller vessels covered as well.

"These critters can attach themselves to the hull and reach State waters and, potentially, become a resident in Bandy Creek.

"Through this program, we’re detecting them early and can hopefully manage them.

"Having this data is invaluable and, with it, we can protect those fisheries in the Recherche.

"We are well aware of the risks associated with interstate vessels.”

Southern Ports chief executive Steve Lewis praised the work of those involved and said the organisation was committed to being environmentally responsible and sustainable for the benefit of the community.