December 29, 2013

New Zealand biosecurity - risks from Smugglers, Containers, Yachts

By Dr Clive Dalton

I was interested to read the recent 2013 compliments for our border security from a visiting Australian, and see his assurance that increasing visitor numbers will not increase threats of exotic disease incursions.  But then I heard former Grasslands scientist John Lancashire argue the opposite, and say that more visitors and increasing free trade deals would add massively to the threats.  I’d put my money on Lancashire.  The three things that scare me are smugglers, containers and yachts.

Visitors who are well informed by responsible travel agents, and who read and comply with the cards you fill in before landing are not a worry.  And neither are visitors and returning Kiwis who understand how threats to farming could put us out of business.

But sadly there are always travellers who deliberately won’t comply with what they see as unnecessary hassle and delay after a long flight, along with the few who see ‘beating the system’ as a game they can skite about afterwards. These are really small-time smugglers.

But the big-time smugglers are the real danger.  I got a big scare once when working for MAFQual’s Ag Quarantine Service, helping to get their message across to the public about what could be brought into NZ and what could not.  It was no small challenge.  I’ve never worked with such a dedicated group – and technology such as scanning and sniffer dogs must have made things easier since then.

The Ag Quarantine Officers at Auckland opened a container of sewing machines which all looked good at the doorway. But when some vigilant officer dug deeper inside, in the middle he found legs of uncooked pork and eggs – presumably a gift for an appreciative family friend!  I learned then that food has more than a nutritional value – it has ethnic and religious significance too, which was where big risks come in.

Containers must be a nightmare, simply because they are increasing and there’s no way every one can be checked.  Their nooks and crannies are ideal for insects (especially ants) or seeds even after cleaning.  Add to that what’s hiding underneath such as massive tropical snails that would eat up our horticulture industry if they got going.

As trade increases, container ships are getting bigger and pressure on turnaround times increase, so even if we had an army checking them it’s probably always going to be a high risk area.  Border security staff have a mammoth job to do so we need plenty of them.

The other scary experience I remember was the business of checking yachts, which I didn’t realise arrive all around our massive coastline at all hours of the day and night, and rely on the honesty of their owners to report to the authorities at some recognised arrival point for quarantine and customs checking. 

The owners of the yacht I went on with the Ag Quarantine officer at a recognised tourist port in Northland were most cooperative. They handed over their potted flowers they’d got in Fiji, said they had no fresh meat (or any other meat) and didn’t have a ship’s cat or dog to go into quarantine while in port.

The MAF officer thanked them and they agreed for an inspection of their tiny cupboards in the sharp end of the yacht where we found tinned beef from Argentina, which the yachties didn’t realise was a problem.  We relieved them of this and checked that all their dry provisions were insect free. These were cooperative travellers who realised the importance of our laws, but can we assume all of those who sail to our fair land are like this?

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