Keeping South Australia fruit fly free is a huge job. Responsible for this is Executive Director of Biosecurity SA at PIRSA, Nathan Rhodes, who was appointed in September 2019.
“The fruit fly response going on at the moment is the biggest we’ve ever had, certainly within the past few decades,” Nathan said.
“We’re responding to seven outbreaks of Mediterranean Fruit Fly from Western Australia across suburban Adelaide. This is severely stretching our resources – it’s essentially seven times the amount of work of a single outbreak.
“We’ve set up an incident management team that is working full time on that including an additional 230 contracted staff, and the response will continue until at least December this year. We have confidence we will eradicate it, but it’s a challenging outbreak.”
PIRSA is currently using baiting and trapping methods in backyard fruit trees in the outbreak areas and will bring in sterile insects to mate with female fruit flies in spring, to break the reproduction cycle.
“The key challenge of this response, aside from the size of the outbreaks, has been the overlay of COVID-19,” Nathan said.
“We haven’t been able to send masses of people out into the community to do their work in the way we normally would, and have had to be careful to ensure our response teams are abiding by the COVID restrictions.
“The interruption to international freight has also provided challenges, with getting the organic baits and traps we use in the response.
“This has added to the cost and complexity of the response, but will not compromise our chances of success.”
As Executive Director of Biosecurity SA at PIRSA Nathan is responsible for ensuring the efficient delivery of South Australia’s biosecurity policy, strategies, legislation, procedures and activities.
That involves looking ahead to other pests and diseases that might impact South Australia and assessing how well the state is equipped to deal with an outbreak.
“Putting COVID-19 aside, the movement of people and goods around the world has just increased so rapidly and is now so fast, the ability of biosecurity systems to keep up with that is stretched,” he said.
“The movement of cargo into Australia is forecast to double over the next five years and that’s going to be a huge challenge for governments, communities and industries. It’s going to really stretch biosecurity systems.
“I don’t think biosecurity agencies, including my own, can manage that increased movement using the systems we’ve always used. We’ve got to manage things differently.
“And the real value will come from the people and businesses who are creating the risk being more aware of what they need to do to manage that risk.”
Nathan is also overseeing the development of a new Biosecurity Act for South Australia, which will merge several pieces of biosecurity legislation into one, with the aim of creating a simpler and more effective legal framework for the management of pests, diseases and weeds. Nathan was also involved with the development of the federal Biosecurity Act 2015 and brings that experience with him.
Originally from South Australia, Nathan worked for the Australian Government Department of Agriculture for more than 14 years, including senior roles with biosecurity operations.
Most recently Nathan was Director of the Inspections Group, where he was responsible for the regulation of all international imports in South Australia and the Northern Territory, including air and sea passengers, cargo and shipping.
“It’s astounding what people will bring through an airport in their suitcase, from a cow’s head to fish in a jar. Sometimes these items would be so rancid we’d almost have to evacuate the arrivals hall,” he said.
Nathan also led the Commonwealth operational response to the detection of Khapra beetle in Adelaide in 2016, working closely with PIRSA.
“This was a huge government and industry response, and I am very pleased it was successful. If we hadn’t been able to eradicate it, this pest would have decimated South Australia’s grain industry,” he said.
Outside of work, Nathan is rebuilding a 1969 caravan and plans to go travelling with his young family when it’s finished.
Biosecurity SA is a division of Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA).