We are building a stronger biosecurity system to protect Australia from hitchhiker pests in sea containers and goods.
Australia has a strong biosecurity system in place to prevent the entry and establishment of pests that could threaten our agricultural industries, economy, environment and way of life.
However, the risk of hitchhiker pests entering Australia is increasing. They are spreading around the world and are being found in increasing numbers on or within sea containers and imported goods.
Australia is currently free of some of the most serious hitchhiker pests in the world and we want to keep it that way. Learn more about hitchhiker pests.
The Hitchhiker Pest Program aims to address the risk of major hitchhiker pests that can be carried via sea containers, their cargo and associated packaging.
The risk of hitchhiker pests entering Australia via sea containers and imported goods is increasing. An outbreak of a hitchhiker pest in Australia could cost billions of dollars (Hafi & Addai, 2014*). For example:
- $15.5 billion over 20 years for khapra beetle
- $8.5 billion over 20 years for red imported fire ant
- $1.7 billion over 20 years for Flighted Spongy Moth Complex (FSMC)
- $1.5 billion over 20 years for giant African snail
- $0.7 billion over 20 years for Asian honeybees.
*Hafi, A & Addai, D 2014, Economic consequences for species representing different pest groups affecting portfolio industries, ABARES report to client prepared for the Risk branch, DAFF, Canberra, September.
Program aim and approach
Around 2.5 million sea containers arrive in Australia each year. Due to this significant volume, it is not feasible to inspect all sea containers on arrival. Instead, the Hitchhiker Pest Program aims to better manage the threat of hitchhiker pests by targeting sea containers that present the highest risk. It also aims to deliver faster, yet safe, clearance processes for lower risk sea containers. The program is being delivered over four years (2021-2025). Its scope is focused on hitchhiker pests on external and internal surfaces of shipping containers and the cargo they contain.
Building off our existing system
While the Hitchhiker Pest Program will deliver a range of new initiatives, it will build off existing measures targeting hitchhiker pests. Learn more about these existing measures below.
See our Hitchhiker Program placemat and factsheet for a visual overview on how the program is protecting Australia from hitchhiker pests.
What we are delivering
- More accurate risk profiling and targeting of high-risk containers for regulatory action, with a focus on offshore management and where appropriate stronger border interventions.
- Increased recognition of compliant importers through reduced intervention on some pathways.
- Partnerships with industry to manage lower risk pathways, enabling the use of industry systems, processes and people.
- Partnerships with trading partners to monitor hitchhiker movements and impose container hygiene standards.
- Trialling the use of innovative technologies to detect and diagnose risk more rapidly.
Projects under the Hitchhiker Program
The Hitchhiker Program encompasses 22 individual projects, grouped into 5 themes.
Risk and control framework
This project is the cornerstone of the Hitchhiker Program. It will set out the appropriate controls for managing biosecurity risks associated with shipping containers and their cargoes, to an acceptable level.
The controls in the framework will be for pre-border and border activities only and informed by the National Hitchhiker (contaminating) plant pest action plan.
The first tranche of this project will focus on reviewing the Country Action List (CAL) and broadly classifying the risk into three categories: high, medium and low risk containers. These categories will be managed differently, with those classified as:
- High risk: inspected by the department (consistent with the current approach for containers).
- Medium risk: managed by industry at an Approved Arrangement (or the department) using business processes.
- Low risk: managed by a new Approved Arrangement ‘lite’ framework that will have lighter touch in terms of regulatory controls and requirements.
Offshore treatment provider assurance program
This project will provide enhanced assurance of the effectiveness of biosecurity treatments applied to manage the risk of hitchhiker pests offshore. Learn more about our existing offshore treatment provider schemes.
Surveillance of Approved Arrangements and First Ports of Entry will play a critical role in monitoring the entry of hitchhiker pests. This project will develop a national surveillance plan for hitchhiker pests, adoption of new detection tools and enhancement of departmental staff capability. Results from surveillance activities will also inform the risk settings of the Risk and Control Framework.
Khapra beetle response strategy
This project will develop an overarching response strategy for khapra beetle, documenting the risk-based actions that the department will undertake to manage detections of khapra beetle associated with goods and conveyances/containers including post-biosecurity detections and other near border scenarios.
It will direct early actions and decisions to suspected khapra beetles including the identification, emergency containment, initial tracing and delimitation activities and treatment, including destruction and disposal, of infested articles, which may include goods and associated packaging, sea containers, storage and handling facilities or sites.
National Plant Protection Organisation (NPPO) collaboration
This project will establish collaborative pre-border arrangements with interested NPPOs to manage hitchhiker risks. The focus is on external sea container surfaces of full containers and internal and external surfaces of empty containers.
Activities will include capacity building and awareness raising, implementing offshore quality systems, and representing Australia and the Pacific’s interests in the IPPC’s Sea Container Focus Group.
Class 19 Approved Arrangements (AAs)
This project aims to streamline processes, improve assurance and create further efficiencies through policy reform and system enhancements for Class 19 AAs.
Class 19 AAs play a vital role in our biosecurity system by enabling importers to self-manage their obligations without constant supervision by DAFF, in turn reducing regulatory burden and impacts on our operational staff. This project will deliver improvements in the administration of these AAs, which will ensure they remain equipped to address increasing risks presented by hitchhiker pests.
Onshore Approved Arrangements (AA)
This project will extend the AA framework to manage hitchhiker pest risks in and on sea containers to support the implementation of the risk and control framework. This includes extending to pathways not subject to existing interventions.
This project will support the assessment of hitchhiker pest risks associated with shipping containers through the use of data and analytics. It will look at the effectiveness of new and existing biosecurity controls to manage hitchhiker pest risks and the creation of a sophisticated algorithm to target risk containers.
Approach rate trial – additional diagnostics
In April 2021, DAFF undertook the khapra beetle approach rate trial to assess the rate of sea containers arriving in Australia that are potentially contaminated with khapra beetle, both alive and dead. Samples of live and dead insects, including adults, larvae and castings, were collected from 2,000 containers through vacuuming. Environmental DNA (eDNA) and eRNA diagnostic methods were then used to determine if khapra beetle were present.
The "Approach rate trial – additional diagnostics" project will build on the khapra beetle approach rate trial to gain a better understanding of the diversity of taxa groups that are associated with shipping containers.
This project will further analyse and diagnose invertebrates and plant material found in the 2,000 samples. This will add value by providing clarification of species composition found and complement current molecular diagnostic assessment being undertaken. This will provide valuable insights into approach rates and future considerations and directions for measures to reduce the risk posed by hitchhiker pests.
Hitchhiker Pest Container Survey
This project involves the inspection of the external surfaces of sea containers from a selection of countries not on the department’s Country Action List (CAL) i.e., countries that are generally not subject to external container inspection on arrival to Australia.
The survey is being undertaken in partnership with Qube Logistics in Queensland and South Australia.
The results of the survey will be used to verify if current risk-settings are effectively managing the risk of hitchhiker pests and contaminants entering Australia on the external surfaces of imported sea containers; and may inform future changes to the CAL.
Compliance Based Risk Management Strategies for Sea Containers and their Cargoes by Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA)
This project will investigate a compliance-based intervention regime to improve the management of risks associated with sea containers and cargo; and to target intervention at the highest risk. This project will also investigate targeted approaches for increased intervention in activities where biosecurity risk is suspected.
Profiling and targeting
This project will develop new and refined profiles to support the management of hitchhiker pests in sea containers. Profiling will allow for border intervention outcomes to be delivered as the Hitchhiker Pest Program progresses.
Alternate treatments for snails
This project aims to investigate a dry heat treatment regime for snails. It aims to define the relationship between heat, exposure and mortality and build on existing research. The project will address gaps in scientific literature on the most tolerant stage of snails via field trials and laboratory research. This treatment will improve the department’s capacity towards offering alternative treatment options for goods infested with snails arriving at Australian ports.
Sea container design improvements
This project will identify modifications that can be made to existing sea containers in-circulation to prevent hitchhiker pests from being present and improve the ability to clean the containers. The research into such modifications will also contribute to the development of an international standard for sea containers. Improved sea container design is intended to provide cost savings for governments and industry and decrease the risk of hitchhiker pests and contaminants arriving both in the short and long term.
Honeybee molecular test
This project aims to develop, optimise and validate a rapid, accurate and reliable single test that can detect the 3 key honeybee mite pests in bee swarms at ports of entry. This single test will mean improved detection capability at the border, and faster detection of exotic bee mites. If an incursion does occur, our ability to accurately conduct surveillance activities will be increased, improving our changes of eradication.
Hand-held hyperspectral camera system
This project aims to develop a hand-held device for advanced surveillance and inspection use in hard-to-reach and difficult-to-inspect areas and time-consuming processes.
The camera system would be used for real-time scanning within an initial set of intended use-case environments and settings such as:
- cracks, crevices and joints in sea containers and building floors and walls
- triaging and processing of vacuum samples
It will help detect the presence of pests such as khapra beetle, invasive ants, termites and weed seeds.
The device utilises two different lens types: a hyperspectral camera lens and Red-Green-Blue (RGB) light wavelength lens. Combined with a self-learning detection algorithm (AI), the device is being trained to instantly detect the presence of key exotic species within specific settings.
The algorithm was developed by Australian company "Intelligent Systems Design" (ISD) during a previous proof-of-concept project with the department that ended in 2021. This project showed that the algorithm could classify plant and animal material and soil from hyperspectral images with 99.8% accuracy on a pixel-by-pixel basis.
The current project is prototyping hardware and AI. In December 2022, ISD commenced an initial set of validation trials in a range of intended use cases and environmental settings, as well as the trialling the taxonomic identification. Simultaneously, ISD commenced developing documentation and regulatory compliance requirements, including a user guide.
Extensive hands-on verification trials in an initial range of intended use cases and environmental settings will be undertaken in July 2023. These trials will confirm the device’s suitability for our unique work and its detection capability and accuracy.
Camera system and detection algorithm
This project builds on a previous tool developed by Trellis Data Pty Ltd: a prototype camera system combined with real-time machine learning to automatically detect biosecurity threats or contaminants on sea containers. The Biosecurity Automated Threat Detection System (BATDS) is based on high-resolution, normal RGB optical cameras mounted on ship to shore quay cranes in Brisbane.
The aim of this project is to verify the capability and accuracy of BATDS in detecting and correctly classifying different biosecurity risk material on shipping containers. Importantly, this project is a trial only and the system’s future potential will be evaluated based on the results.
Environmental DNA (eDNA) and point-of-care technology
This project will test and validate eDNA technology to allow for the rapid, cost-effective and reliable detection of hitchhiker pests in sea containers and in surveillance of Approved Arrangements. This technology will also be assessed for point-of-care application for detection of eDNA and eRNA.
Biosecurity system simulation model
This project will enhance the department’s existing capability to estimate biosecurity risk, expenditure, and value across the national biosecurity system and at the individual pathway level. Initially, it will focus on ensuring the growing risk of hitchhiker pests is appropriately modelled and uses the latest input data. This work will inform the prioritisation of intervention to higher risk areas and where economic or environmental impact of pest/disease outbreaks would be most severe.
Enhancing the Compliance Based Intervention Scheme (CBIS) plant and animal
The CBIS uses a contemporary approach to manage biosecurity risk by applying risk-based intervention on imported goods that have continually demonstrated a high level of compliance with Australia’s import conditions. It allows the department to incentivise compliance which leads to good regulatory outcomes and reallocate biosecurity resources onto higher-risk pathways. More information on CBIS can be found at CBIS for plant commodities and CBIS for animal commodities.
This project will look to expand the breadth and functionality of CBIS to provide greater flexibility for managing a broader range of plant and animal imports.
Enterprise pest solution (EPS)
The EPS will be a future state assessment and management capability (processes and system) to manage hitchhiker pest risks associated with containers and containerised cargo. It aims to deliver a modern, effective biosecurity system that is underpinned by the right technology, information systems and analytical capabilities.
More specifically, this project seeks to develop a new ICT system that supports accurate risk profiling. This will ensure that regulatory interventions are targeted at the highest risk and will enable more flexibility for shifting between lower and higher risk pathways based on compliance history, or a change in biosecurity risk status.
Hitchhiker biosecurity officer recruitment
This project has been completed. Over 250 new biosecurity officers and supporting staff have been onboarded. These staff are providing ongoing support for measures such as the increase in frontline resources, screening technology, testing and targeted compliance operations, and higher penalties for serious breaches.
This project is working with Australian company, RingIR, to explore the possibility of whether its real-time ‘cavity ringdown spectroscopy technology’ can be used to detect pests of biosecurity concern in-difficult-to-inspect areas and commodities. The project concluded in March 2023 with the results indicating the technology can detect and differentiate the vapour-phase secretions of hitchhiker pests in a laboratory setting. Future work involving additional repeats and more in-depth testing would be required to demonstrate the potential capability of this technology in an operational setting.
Leading sea container industry bodies and government join hands to seek solutions for reducing plant health and biodiversity risks
12th July 2023
Every year, more than 241 million containers cross the oceans to bring us everything from food and medicines to raw materials and luxury handbags. Trade is the glue holding the global economy together, and our societies cannot grow and prosper without it. But it carries some risks – pests and plants can be carried in cargo and containers across the world and cause serious damage if they manage to invade new biospheres. Now, industry and government are coming together under the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) to develop new solutions to prevent the transfer of invasive species between continents via the sea container pathway.
Learn more about this work in the media release below.
Media release: Leading sea container industry bodies and government join hands to seek solutions for reducing plant health and biodiversity risks (PDF 486 KB)
Media release: Leading sea container industry bodies and government join hands to seek solutions for reducing plant health and biodiversity risks (DOCX 2 MB)
If you have difficulty accessing these files, visit web accessibility for assistance.
Stakeholders interested in receiving information and updates on the Hitchhiker Pest Program are invited to subscribe via the department's online subscription service. By subscribing to 'Hitchhiker Pest Program’ under ‘Biosecurity news’, you will receive updates and other notifications relating to the program.
A summary of recent updates relating to the program is available below
|Table of recent updates under the Hitchhiker Program|
|Industry advice notice: 33-2023: Implementation of the Learnhub Education and Training Platform for class 19 accredited persons|
Industry advice notice: 10-2023: Update on the Hitchhiker Pest Container Survey