Getting better will not be good enough
– The wicked problem of biosecurity

Patrick Hone, Annabel Boyer, Matt Barwick, Toby Piddocke & Jennifer Marshall

Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC)


Over the past 30 years, Australian seafood industries have been devastated by a steady march of disease outbreaks affecting finfish and shellfish, often with little or no warning. In 1995, dead pilchards (now called sardines) washed up on Farm Beach west of Port Lincoln, foreshadowing the onset of mass mortalities caused by the Pilchard Orthomyxovirus. Ten years later, dead abalone were found on reefs adjacent to Port Fairy, again victims of viral disease. Five years after that, the deadly Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS) was discovered in the Georges River, Sydney, and subsequently spread to Tasmania. Then, on the 22nd of November 2016, a few very observant prawn farmers in southeast Queensland reported unusual prawn behaviour in their farm ponds. By the 30th of November, White Spot Disease (WSD) was positively identified, and an economically damaging and socially destructive outbreak was underway. These examples are just four of the disease episodes that have occurred in the last 30 years. Each episode has been devastating, and all have starkly illustrated aquatic disease management’s primary challenge: the underwater world has no fences. 

Timeline of major aquatic animal disease outbreaks in Australia

Given the absence of effective barriers for disease containment in freshwater and marine environments, how can one establish a ‘firebreak’ when an exotic virus or a pest gets in the ocean? This ugly reality was demonstrated in 1995, when the pilchard virus started to emerge just west of Port Lincoln, initiating waves of destruction to the west and east and leaving millions of pilchards dead in its wake. At the time it was the world’s largest fish kill. The focus then was on cleaning beaches of dead fish, and managing the pilchard fishery so that commercial catch sizes allowed for a rebuilding of the pilchard stock (see for current stock status In some parts of the fishery 25 years on, the stock has still not rebuilt to pre-virus levels.

Aquatic environments lend themselves to the proliferation of pests as well as diseases. In Australian marine environments, some 250 exotic pest species have been documented. Similarly in freshwater environments pests are common, and many have become embedded in the landscape to the extent that control attempts elicit concern from those stakeholders who have adapted to utilise them. European Carp earns its reputation as an ecosystem modifier throughout southern Australian waterways. Likewise, the expanding introduced Tilapia population, like the cane toad, threatens aquatic ecosystems in northern parts of the country. With so many transport vectors the protection of Australia’s unique ecosystems is a wicked problem.

Queensland’s 2016 WSD outbreak demonstrates why a fundamental shift in mindset may be the most potent weapon in our biosecurity arsenal. To illustrate, an earlier and successfully contained incursion in a government fish hatchery had clearly shown imported green prawn product for human consumption presented a white spot risk if used for purposes other than human consumption. The outbreak of WSD in the prawn farms along the Logan River, adjacent to Moreton Bay, coincided with a period where some 80% of imported green prawn product in supermarkets was likewise positive for the same.

The origin of the Logan River WSD outbreak has never been conclusively demonstrated. Nevertheless, the prevalence of WSD in supermarket prawn products saw regulators quickly halt their importation.

As a consequence of funding the research that identified WSD in a high proportion of imported prawns, FRDC found itself in a classic case of ‘shoot the messenger’, as for various reasons, this information was not well received. During a biosecurity crisis, research is not always the most welcome guest.

As a science-based organisation that works to provide information for evidence-based decision-making, FRDC is often the supplier of contentious knowledge. A critical lesson we have taken away is that science makes a much larger impact when trust is an inherent characteristic of the decision-making process. ‘Peace time’ – the periods during which a major biosecurity event is not underway – provides opportunities to build the trust that becomes an essential resource during an emergency. At FRDC we often say that in the fisheries world it is not fish that are managed, but people. The same can be said about biosecurity preparedness and response, it’s all about people management and strong, informed, trust-inspiring leadership, and well supported, enduring partnerships are vital ingredients. When WSD emerged in the Logan River, the executive officer of the Australian Prawn Farmer’s Association, Helen Jenkins, was participating in the Australian Rural Leadership Program with FRDC sponsorship. Many of the prawn farmers on the Logan River were similarly trained in leadership and had strong connections to government partners who were supporting them. The commercial prawn trawl fishery in Moreton Bay was also well supported by leaders who had built up partnerships during leadership training. The ‘human capital’ that this peace time preparation had built was essential to managing the disease outbreak. 

This example illustrates the importance of building resilience and preparedness in peace time because, that lays the foundations for effective response in future times of crisis. Research that helps us to understand how to initiate and manage culture change is therefore critical. Biosecurity is a shared responsibility. For some reason this has been largely lost on many fishers, fish farmers and the general public. The long-held view has been that government might single-handedly protect Australian natural resources from disease and pest incursions. Science – particularly the social sciences – can play a critical role in facilitating behavioural change and building community trust.

As a science organisation that is exploring novel surveillance and control technologies, we face the problem that the appetite for new technology deployment is now culturally challenged by government and public views on past technologies, with no acknowledgement of the lessons taken forward. Furthermore, misinformation disguised as science makes it difficult to find agreement for advancing new technologies. The debate on the National Carp Control Plan illustrates how entrenched views on either side of the so-called science divide can stymie quality evidence-based dialogue. These divisions are exacerbated by widespread propagation of misinformation.

In biosecurity, misinformation distracts stakeholders from the broader strategic issues needed for clear-sighted decision-making. For example, at a time when climate change is putting Australia’s freshwater and marine ecosystems under significant ecological stress, the additional burden of pests reduces the resilience of systems to adapt. A changing climate has provided a new strategic imperative for pest control, yet this is generally not being reflected in public debates about biosecurity issues. Once again, building trust with stakeholders and partners is crucial if important issues and priorities are to have an opportunity to cut through misinformation.

In a natural resource management context, fighting a war with exotic pests and diseases in an increasingly connected world requires innovative, and adaptable approaches. Ring-fenced eradication – historically the mainstay of biosecurity control – will need to give way to landscape-scale solutions. With decreasing system stability, it’s critical to increase our capacity to respond nimbly, and with knowledge of how our responses change the playing field as a whole. 

Our conception of risk is also changing as the 21st century progresses; as the world becomes increasingly connected through globalised trade, rapid transport and e-commerce, risk velocity has increased. New free-trade deals have also effectively increased our risk appetite, particularly in relation to imported products. Yet simultaneously, the emergence of internet-connected sensors that can operate through the supply chain has increased our capacity to detect, and at times, control risk. 

Learning to harness these new technologies is a crucial challenge for today’s biosecurity professionals. The National Carp Control Plan (NCCP) has been a large step towards that goal, to consider the feasibility of using a virus (Cyprinid herpesvirus 3, or CyHV-3) as a biocontrol agent for carp. Multi-disciplinary teams were required to work collaboratively to integrate their outputs to explore risks, costs and benefits. In addition to the research, it was also critical for the NCCP to include extensive stakeholder consultation, not only to inform socioeconomic risk modelling, but to build and maintain trust through communication and transparency. This landscape-scale approach required a different approach in funding as well. Such collaborative and nimble research and communications efforts required that funding be considered at the program-scale, rather than on a more traditional piece-meal basis. One benefit of such an approach is that systems modelling is designed with integration in mind, which facilitates continuous exploration and re-analysis in response to new information. Improving this ability, while costly to initiate, will ultimately allow for more efficient response to events in future. Further, such system-wide research also provides opportunity to take the next critical step – anticipatory analysis for possible future scenarios. Such analyses could offer insights into problem recognition, and consequently improved response actions and efficiencies.

Simply doing what we’ve done in the past, but better, is no longer sufficient. Instead, we need to challenge ourselves to find new ways of thinking and acting on biosecurity. That means we need to do science using multi-disciplinary teams that work with all users to ensure results can be implemented. For those working in the research and development corporations (RDCs), that means we need to change how we fund biosecurity research. The sector approach does not work for addressing the large scale systems that need to be improved. This means the RDCs will also need to change how they work and do things differently. These changes will certainly require collaboration, but will also demand of us new ways of thinking that encompass technology, trade policy, whole supply chains, natural ecosystems, and their final intersection at the farm gate. 

This article was a collaborative effort by FRDC staff: Patrick Hone, Annabel Boyer, Matt Barwick, Toby Piddocke and Jennifer Marshall.

Dr Patrick Hone is Managing Director of the FRDC, a member of the National Marine Science Committee, and a member of the Council of Rural Research and Development Corporations. Patrick has extensive knowledge of all sectors (Indigenous, Commercial and Recreational) of fishing and aquaculture. He has more than 20 years working for the FRDC and has played a key role in the planning, management and funding of fishing and aquaculture related research, development and extension in Australia. In recent years Patrick has become one of Australia’s leading spokespeople on the role of aquatic science to inform the ecological sustainable development of fishing and aquaculture.

Image:  CSIRO