24 January 2019
The spread of myrtle rust to K’gari (Fraser Island) poses a significant threat to key ecosystems on the island and a new challenge for the Butchulla Land and Sea Rangers, the recently formed team helping to protect and manage environmental and cultural heritage in Butchulla country.
What is myrtle rust?
Myrtle rust is a serious fungal disease that affects plants of the Myrtaceae family, including gum trees, bottle brushes, paperbarks and lilly pillies. The disease can cause deformed leaves, defoliation, stunted growth, dieback and death of affected plants.
First detected in Australia in 2010 and easily spread by wind, people’s clothing, insects, birds and infected plant material, myrtle rust is considered established and widespread along the entire east coast of Australia. It has also been recorded in Tasmania and on Melville Island in the Northern Territory.
The threat of myrtle rust to K’gari
Various genera of the Myrtaceae family occur on K’gari, forming significant components of a range of ecosystems. Some genera appear to be relatively immune to myrtle rust, such as Syncarpia (commonly known as turpentine trees), but others such as Melaleuca (known locally as paperbarks, tea trees or honey myrtles) appear very susceptible to attack.
Scientists and conservationists have expressed considerable concern about the threat of myrtle rust on K’gari, including conservationist Dr John Sinclair – the man who fought to save Fraser Island.
Dr Sinclair has indicated that there are two ominous threats to K’gari:
- myrtle rust
- climate change, assuming the appropriate fire regime is achieved.
It has been suggested that myrtle rust is a more imminent threat to K’gari integrity with a significant floristic change to various regional ecosystems eventuating.
The Butchulla Land and Sea Rangers
The management of K’gari now rests with the Butchulla Air and Sea Rangers working closely the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers.
The Butchulla Land and Sea Rangers (BLSR) program was formed in August 2018 to help continue the protection and management of environmental and cultural heritage in Butchulla country. Their work involves protecting, connecting and learning about country and engaging with Butchulla elders, community and stakeholders to gain knowledge and guidance.
One of the BLSR’s new challenges is to recognise and deal with myrtle rust on K’giri, endeavouring to minimise its impact. Dr Geoff Peg, Forest Pathologist with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and a recognised expert on myrtle rust will guide the rangers in this task.
Wildlife Queensland is confident that with the blending of knowledge and experience the appropriate fire regime strategy will be achieved.
The war against myrtle rust will be the challenge!
Meeting the challenge of myrtle rust on K’gari
To meet this challenge, there will be a need for adequate resources to be made available. It’s important to expend the funds now because the protection and conservation of the cultural and natural heritage are much cheaper in the long run than forced rehabilitation.
- The Government needs to consider innovative ways to ensure the Butchulla Land and Sea Ranger program continues to grow and prosper. Perhaps a cultural heritage levy on permits could be introduced to expand the BLSR program. K’gari must be cared for.
- The Australian Government should also have a role to play. Surely the Australian Government does not want the World Heritage status of yet another property for which it has responsibility called into question?
Can myrtle rust be eradicated?
Whilst myrtle rust can’t be eradicated, it can be managed.
Management of myrtle rust by hygiene and fungicide spray programs can assist in home gardens and other cultivated situations. However, such approaches are not currently practical in natural bushland.
The Myrtle Rust National Management Group has determined that eradication of myrtle rust is not technically feasible. A draft Action Plan has been developed with two overarching recommendations and 5 themes. One of those themes is awareness and engagement.
This theme is underpinned by three actions:
- raise awareness of myrtle rust and the environmental response
- engage key non-government stakeholders and the broader public
- seek Indigenous stakeholder input and participation.
Hopefully, greater awareness will assist in minimising the accidental spread of this rust and the detection and reporting of rust from new localities.
Good news stories do in fact occur!
The early detection and reporting of the rust on Lord Howe Island back in 2017 apparently has led to the eradication of myrtle rust on that island.
Other themes include, but are not limited to, towards recovery and biosecurity.
- The focus of the recovery theme is germplasm capture of species in current or projected decline, improve the understanding of affected species and those at risk.
- The prime objectives of the biosecurity theme are to prevent the arrival of new strains and vigorously maintain current quarantine arrangements for South Australia and Western Australia.
Biosecurity Queensland is leading the Queensland Government’s response.
While managing and minimising the impact of myrtle rust on K’gari is critical, efforts to reduce the impact elsewhere in Queensland are highly relevant.
As of 2018, myrtle rust has been recorded from 21 local authority areas from Gold Coast City in the south to Cairns City in the north and west to Western Downs Regional and affected host species total 143.
Further information is available at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries website.
You can help win the war against myrtle rust!
There are various ways you can help.
1. Learn to recognise what myrtle rust looks like
- Myrtle rust is typically characterised by the appearance of reddish brown flecks on the underside of leaves of susceptible myrtaceous species.
- These flecks form yellowish red brown pustules that may fade to a brownish red.
- On young stems, the pustules may appear on the upper surface of leaves.
2. Report any possible cases of myrtle rust to Biosecurity Queensland
- Your help will assist the management of this disease and possibly assist certain research programs.
3. Support the war on myrtle rust by writing to your local MP
- Write to the Hon. Mark Furner MP, Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Commend the Government’s effort to combat myrtle rust to date and request that the battle continues.
- Write to the Hon. Leeanne Enoch MP, Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Minister for Science, and Minister for the Arts at email@example.com
- Communicate your support of the Butchulla Land and Sea Ranger program and request that adequate funding is provided for the program to not only continue but expand.