The biosecurity incident has highlighted the unwitting export of potentially deadly Australian spiders, including redbacks, to places that may not be set up to deal with them.
Norfolk Island is one of Australia’s most isolated outposts, and blissfully free of many dangerous and pest species that plague the mainland. Biosecurity conditions are designed to keep it that way.
But Mr Edward said quarantine standards lapsed when the federal government revoked the island’s autonomy in 2015 and brought it under Commonwealth and state control.
He said in the past, Norfolk Island officials boarded ships to inspect potential biosecurity issues but goods were now routinely unloaded and inspected onshore by federal officials.
“It can’t be done properly if the bugs are landing on the island and not being treated before they get here,” he said.
“If somebody was to be bitten by these things we’d have to wait hours for a plane to come in to take them off.”
Redbacks are fast becoming seasoned world travellers. Cor Vink, a spider expert at New Zealand’s Canterbury Museum, said the species was first discovered in that nation’s Otago region in the 1980s and had established itself in parts of Japan and Belgium.
In recent years, there have also been media reports of redbacks in Iran, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
Dr Vink said redbacks were often attracted to shipments containing cars and other steel, which heated up in the sun and provided the perfect warm conditions in which to mature their eggs.
As global trade accelerated, it was going to be a “constant battle” to stop unwanted insect species spreading around the world, he said. “They just keep coming and we have to get smarter about intercepting them.”
Mr Edward has written to the government demanding urgent intervention into Norfolk Island’s “disastrously inadequate” biosecurity controls.
He said the latest incident involved heavy equipment being brought to the island from Australia, via a New Zealand freight vessel. When the spiders were detected, biosecurity officers onshore “sent one can of Mortein out and requested the webs be sprayed” and a pest controller fumigated the equipment when it was unloaded.
One cargo worker “found a redback spider crawling on the pier, which he killed”, the letter states.
In a statement, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said officials “undertook a comprehensive inspection prior to any release of cargo to minimise risk to island communities”.
“Reinspection of the packages reinforced that our biosecurity measures were effective, and risk to the island extremely low,” it said.
The department said it “works collaboratively with other entities globally … to ensure innovative management of biosecurity.”
A Department of Infrastructure official confirmed redback anti-venom was not kept on Norfolk Island, but said bites were not likely to be fatal, even if untreated.
Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.