Invasive pest threat – Late order to restrict ship movements questioned

Two months after the arrival of the coconut rhinoceros beetle in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s Department of Biosecurity has ordered the Office of the Maritime Regulator to control the movement of shipping vessels departing Port Vila to stop the spread of the invasive beetle to other islands in Vanuatu.

This week, the Department of Biosecurity ordered that shipping vessels can only depart Port Vila Harbour in daylight, with after dark, night-time departures banned unless the lights of departing ships are switched off.

The Maritime Regulator, Hickinson Siba, says vessels can only depart Port Vila in the dark if they switch off their lights so the very mobile coconut rhinoceros beetles are not attracted to land on the ships and then be taken to other islands.

Mr Siba says the beetle, which could devastate Vanuatu’s important coconut farming industry, arrived in Port Vila from more northerly parts of the island two months ago, in September.

“Up until now ships have continued to depart at night because we hadn’t received any orders to control the movement of vessels to prevent the spread of this beetle,” Mr Siba said.

Mr Siba questioned whether the two-month delay in the Department of Biosecurity issuing the order to restrict vessel movements could have allowed the pest to enter other islands of Vanuatu.

The Department of Biosecurity had announced at a press conference in September, that it would work with the Office of the Maritime Regulator to ensure ships at Port Vila Harbour were only allowed to depart Port Vila in daylight hours.

A Vanuatu Biosecurity officer, Touasi Tiwok, says the order to ban ship departures at night from Port Vila was delayed until a recent Council of Ministers meeting in Lakatoro on Melakula island was able to consider the issue of the beetles’ rapid spread so an order could be made.

Ms Tiwok confirmed the importance of stopping the spread of the beetle to other islands beyond Efate.

Mr Siba says he is currently working on a letter to notify all ship owners about the new restrictions on the movements of ships from Port Vila.

Coconut rhinoceros beetles were first found to have infested coconut plantations in Vanuatu in northern Efate in July 2019.

A state of emergency was announced back then to contain the beetles but in February this year the Department of Biosecurity confirmed the pest had spread beyond the north of the island.

Vanuatu’s efforts to contain the beetles have included burning nests, establishing quarantine zones and in October last year, around 30 beetles infused with a virus were released into contaminated areas.

 

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