Statement of Concern
We call upon all Australian governments to respond to the threat of Myrtle Rust through co-ordinated and collaborative action to implement the National Action Plan for Myrtle Rust in Australia.
Global interconnectedness is increasing the risk from a new type of threat to Australia’s irreplaceable biological heritage: exotic plant and animal diseases1,2 to which native Australian biota may have no adaptive resistance. Some of these diseases are broad-spectrum, affecting many native species.
Myrtle Rust is a new threat of this type. This plant disease, caused by an introduced fungal pathogen, affects plant species in the Myrtle family (Myrtaceae), which includes paperbarks, tea-trees, eucalypts, and lillypillies. These are key, and often dominant, species in many Australian ecosystems. First detected near Sydney in 2010, the pathogen has naturalised along the entire east coast and has proven capable of infecting over 380 native plant species. Twenty to fifty of the currently-impacted species are threatened with severe decline3,4,5,6. Some face near-term extinction7.
Broader ecological consequences are expected from the disease. Myrtle Rust is likely to have a significant impact on Matters of National Environmental Significance protected under national environment law, including listed threatened species and ecological communities4,5,9, wetlands of international importance4,6, World Heritage properties6, and national heritage places.
Many more species, ecosystems and special places may be at risk if the pathogen spreads to Western Australia6, or if further strains of the same pathogen (one of them known to be strongly eucalypt-associated) arrive from overseas8.
While the Myrtle Rust pathogen (Austropuccinia psidii) does not directly affect human or animal health, its impacts on ecosystem integrity are likely to have critical flow-on effects to people and animals, through economic, social and cultural values, amenity, loss of key habitat, and loss of genetic resources. Sectors such as tourism, recreation, and nursery and garden industries, including rural and regional and Indigenous enterprises, are likely to be impacted economically.
The arrival in Australia of Myrtle Rust disease is the second example in recent decades (after amphibian Chytrid disease) of the enormous environmental damage that can be done by broad-spectrum exotic pathogens. Myrtle Rust is our second wake-up call – such pathogens are on the move globally1,2.
Australia is experienced in excluding agricultural diseases, and in managing them when exclusion fails. We are much less practiced, and less equipped, in dealing with diseases that threaten our wild biodiversity. A 2017 review of Australia’s biosecurity arrangements11 recognised the longstanding inadequacy of investment and engagement of environmental agencies in specifically environmental aspects of biosecurity. This shortfall has not yet been remedied – particularly the critical need to increase skill levels and engagement of environmental agencies, and the wider environmental sector, in the detection, impact assessment, and management of broad-spectrum environmental pathogens.
Primary industry and biosecurity agencies provided valuable leadership when Myrtle Rust arrived in Australia. However, there was no effective handover of the national response from those agencies to the Commonwealth and State environmental agencies11,12. Isolated efforts under state agencies, and fragmented research under competitive-grant schemes, produce valuable outcomes, but are not adequate for the scale of the problem. Ten years after the arrival of the disease, Australia still lacks a nationally coordinated and resourced strategy to respond to the environmental dimensions of the threat.
Some pervasive threats to native biodiversity are the subject of dedicated long-term programs to minimise their impact. This is a proven means of mitigating a problem by focussing sustained resources towards it. We note the vigorous response of New Zealand to the Myrtle Rust pathogen since its arrival there in 2017, where a well-resourced national strategy, and plans for research and conservation action, were in place by 2020.
There is an urgent need to establish similar mechanisms and resourcing to address Myrtle Rust impacts in Australia. The effort must be cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary, bringing together science and practice across jurisdictional boundaries and across the silos that separate agricultural and biodiversity science expertise and communications.
There are multiple benefits of a vigorous environmental response to Myrtle Rust. Some species may be saved from extinction; damage to some critical ecological communities can be mitigated. A strong response will raise public awareness of environmental pathogen threats, and elevate the preparedness and capability of the environmental sector to contribute to the rapidly growing risk of environmental biosecurity threats. Conversely, continued failure to respond to the Myrtle Rust threat risks de-motivating the public and the environmental sectors on biosecurity issues.
The National Action Plan for Myrtle Rust in Australia15, developed by a collaborative network of plant health and conservation specialists, identifies the priority research and actions needed to tackle the environmental impacts of the pathogen. Implementation of the plan requires national coordination and direction, dedicated funding, and cross-governmental ownership. Time is very short for some species that are severely impacted by Myrtle Rust, but there are meaningful conservation actions that can still be taken.
We the undersigned, recommend an urgent and united approach by Australian governments, based on the National Action Plan for Myrtle Rust in Australia, to lead a collaborative and co-ordinated national response.
As immediate steps we recommend:
- The formation and endorsement by Australian governments of a national steering committee of science and practitioner experts, to commence implementation of the National Action Plan for Myrtle Rust in Australia.
- The appointment of a project officer for three years to facilitate the work of the steering committee and the implementation of the Plan.
- The national steering committee to report through the Environment and Invasives Committee to the National Biosecurity Committee, and to national environmental agencies across jurisdictions through the inter-governmental Biodiversity Working Group.
National Policy Context
The Myrtle Rust pathogen falls under the Commonwealth’s 2013 Key Threatening Process listing of ‘Novel biota and their impact on biodiversity’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 199916. However, this listing and its associated threat abatement guidelines provide only general recommendations for responses to exotic invasive biota. While some are relevant to Myrtle Rust, many features of this pathogen require management approaches and a level of active leadership and coordination that go far beyond these general guidelines.
During the decade since the arrival of the Myrtle Rust pathogen, Australia has recognised the benefits of a nationally coordinated multi-jurisdictional response to several other key biodiversity threats by establishing national action frameworks. For some Key Threatening Processes (e.g. rabbits, Phytophthora disease, amphibian chytridiomycosis disease, foxes, and feral cats), the Australian Government has developed Threat Abatement Plans (TAPs), which are legislatively defined “national frameworks to guide and coordinate Australia’s response to key threatening processes” and which “identify research, management and other actions needed to ensure the long-term survival of native species and ecological communities”13.
A TAP for Myrtle Rust may be appropriate in the future. However, TAPs take some years to develop. The extremely urgent nature of the disease, and the very rapid decline of some highly susceptible species, mean that a more immediate and effective interim national framework is also urgently needed. The National Action Plan for Myrtle Rust in Australia provides a framework suitable for both immediate implementation and longer-term use pending any eventual TAP.
For some key biosecurity threats, national leadership has been taken a step further, helping to make rapid progress on galvanising cross-jurisdictional and multi-sectoral action, research, practice and awareness-raising. This has particularly been the case with the development of a National Feral Cat Taskforce under the first phase of the Australian Governments Threatened Species Strategy. Similar leadership on Myrtle Rust and the wider issue of introduce diseases would transform Australia’s capacity to deal with this global threat.
The Australian Government’s Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-203014 embeds Australia’s commitments to prevent extinction under the global Convention on Biological Diversity. The strategy recognises as Objective 6 (Maximising the number of species secured in nature) that conservation efforts for “improved cross-boundary and cross-border collaboration” and “ex-situ conservation programs and emergency interventions implemented for the most at-risk species” will be needed to meet some threats. Objective 7 (Reduce threats and risks to nature and build resilience) recognises a need to establish “robust mechanisms to respond effectively to new and emerging threats” with measures of success requiring management programs “for established invasive species that pose a significant threat to species and/or ecosystems” and “to minimise incursion and spread of new and emerging invasive species”. All these parameters fit the threat profile of the Myrtle Rust pathogen and correspond to needs identified in the National Action Plan.
- Pathogens on the Move: A 100-Year Global Experiment with Planted Eucalypts. T.I. Burgess & M.J. Wingfield, BioScience 67 No. 1 (2017).
- Emerging fungal threats to animal, plant and ecosystem health. M.C. Fisher, Nature 484 (12 April 2012).
- Impact of the invasive rust Puccinia psidii (myrtle rust) on native Myrtaceae in natural ecosystems in Australia. A.J. Carnegie et al., Biological Invasions 18 (2016). DOI 10.1007/s10530-015-0996-y
- Impact of Austropuccinia psidii (myrtle rust) on Myrtaceae-rich wet sclerophyll forests in south east Queensland. G. Pegg et al., PLoS ONE 12(11): e0188058. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0188058
- Predicting impact of Austropuccinia psidii on populations of broad leaved Melaleuca species in Australia. G.S. Pegg et al., Australasian Plant Pathology 47 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13313-018-0574-8
- Myrtle Rust reviewed: the impacts of the invasive pathogen Austropuccinia psidii on the Australian environment. R.O. Makinson (2018). Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, Canberra. http://www.apbsf.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Myrtle-Rust-reviewed-June-22-2018-web.pdf
- Final Determinations for Lenwebbia ‘Main Range’ (P.R. Sharpe+ 4877), Rhodamnia rubescens, and Rhodomyrtus psidioides [all as Critically Endangered]. NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee (2019, 2020): https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/animals-and-plants/threatened-species/nsw-threatened-species-scientific-committee/determinations/nsw-threatened-species-scientific-committee-final-determinations
- The National Priority List of Exotic Environmental Pests, Weeds and Diseases. Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (2020): https://www.agriculture.gov.au/biosecurity/environmental/priority-list
- Introduction and establishment of exotic rust fungi of the order Pucciniales pathogenic on plants of the family Myrtaceae – key threatening process listing. NSW Scientific Committee – final determination (2011): https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/animals-and-plants/threatened-species/nsw-threatened-species-scientific-committee/determinations/final-determinations/2011-2012/introduction-and-establishment-of-exotic-rust-fungi-key-threatening-process-listing
- Priorities for Australia’s biosecurity system, An independent review of the capacity of the national biosecurity system and its underpinning Intergovernmental Agreement. W. Craik et al. (2017). https://www.agriculture.gov.au/sites/default/files/sitecollectiondocuments/biosecurity/partnerships/nbc/priorities-for-aus-bio-system.pdf
- Australia’s transition to management of myrtle rust. C. Howard et al., Journal of Forest Science 61n (2015). doi: 10.17221/20/2014-JFS
- Lessons from the Incursion of Myrtle Rust in Australia. A.J. Carnegie & G.S. Pegg, Annual Review of Phytopathology 56 (2018).
- Approved threat abatement plans. Australian Government: https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/threat-abatement-plans/approved, accessed 1 Feb. 2021.
- Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019-2030. Australian Government: https://www.australiasnaturehub.gov.au/national-strategy
- Myrtle Rust in Australia – a National Action Plan. R.O. Makinson et al., Australian Plant Biosecurity Science Foundation, Canberra (2020). https://www.apbsf.org.au/myrtle-rust/
- Novel biota and their impact on biodiversity – Key Threatening Process listing. [Commonwealth] Threatened Species Scientific Committee (2013): https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/008e4e04-642a-45b5-8313-53514b0e1b52/files/novel-biota-listing-advice.pdf