DOC staff on the Kermadecs’ Raoul Island have confirmed the discovery of the fungal plant disease myrtle rust on pōhutukawa trees.
If it entered mainland New Zealand, the fungus could affect iconic species such as pōhutukawa, kānuka, mānuka and rātā.
In a statement, MPI’s Director Readiness and Response, Geoff Gwyn, said myrtle rust spores can carry long distances on the wind, however, the Raoul Island location is very remote from mainland New Zealand.
“It’s over one thousand kilometres to the northeast of Northland and access to the island is strictly controlled and only by permit. Those visiting Raoul Island are mainly scientists and maintenance people, mostly working for DOC,” said Gwyn.
“Our focus right now is to do what we can to protect the unique Raoul Island ecosystem from this disease, and to prevent the further spread of the fungus to mainland New Zealand,” he added.
The Science Media Centre gathered expert reaction on the find. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting.
Dr Andrea Byrom, Director of the NZ’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, comments:
“The recent finding of myrtle rust on Raoul Island pōhutukawa trees marks a significant and very sad milestone in a long history of impacts of invasive pathogens, pests and weeds on New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna.
“Myrtle rust is a highly invasive plant pathogen whose impacts – if it establishes on the New Zealand mainland – will not be limited to our native flora. The pathogen also has the potential to pose a serious risk to primary industries, because it affects all species of the plant family Myrtaceae, such as feijoa, eucalyptus, and mānuka. In Australia, the disease is – worryingly – threatening several treasured plant species of significance to Aboriginal Australians.
“Critical to the success of any response will be a rapid and coordinated approach. We will need to make maximum use of all available information collected formally by DOC and MPI. But equally importantly right now, there is no better time to put into action one of the strategic priorities outlined in MPI’s ‘Biosecurity 2025’ action plan: making the best use of 4.7 million engaged and biosecurity-aware citizens, keeping an eye out for the first signs of this disease.
“Scientists in the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge will work closely with the Māori Biosecurity Network, DOC, and MPI to make every effort to prevent the spread of this disease to the mainland of Aotearoa New Zealand.
“In 2016 the NZ’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge funded a multidisciplinary research project aimed at boosting the preparedness of NZ’s biosecurity system for an incursion of this plant pathogen.
“The research project, ‘Māori solutions to biosecurity threats and incursions to taonga species’ is led by a Māori research team from the BioProtection Research Centre at Lincoln University in collaboration with Te Turi Whakamātaki (the Māori Biosecurity Network), Auckland Council, Scion, Plant & Food Research, Better Border Biosecurity, the Department of Conservation, the Ministry for Primary Industries, and international collaborators in Australia, South Africa, the UK, and the US.
“A major strand to the project is to make better use of surveillance data to inform incursion responses just like the one we are now facing. The research team recognised early on the potential impacts of the pathogen, and have a network of citizen scientists and researchers ‘ready to act’ with their international counterparts.”
Dr David Teulon, director, Better Border Biosecurity (B3), comments:
“Myrtle rust is a significant disease of plant species from the Myrtaceae and has been spreading rapidly around the world in recent years. If it reached mainland New Zealand, it could have a serious impact on a number of our taonga Māori plant species, such as pōhutukawa and rātā, with severe infections causing plants to die.
“Plants that are also important to our honey industry, such as mānuka and kānuka, could also be affected, which could severely impact on New Zealand’s annual $300 million of honey exports.”