The detection of deadly fungal disease myrtle rust in Northland has spurred a nationwide scramble to collect the seed of 33 native myrtle species that are now at risk.

New Zealand's $300 million manuka honey industry is also under threat by the incursion. It comes as the Herald has learned some scientists are frustrated at what they see as a lack of preparation; one questioning why a specific strategy wasn't put in place when the disease was first found in Australia in 2010.

Were we caught off-guard? Science reporter Jamie Morton put their concerns to the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) readiness and response director, Geoff Gwyn.
Did the government (MPI) have a specific plan, designed purposely for a myrtle rust incursion, ready to go before it was detected? If not, why?

MPI does not have specific response plans for every threat species that could possibly arrive in New Zealand (although it does for some threats such as foot-and-mouth disease and the brown marmorated stink bug).

We have a standardised and very effective response system that is used for all biosecurity incursions.

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It is well-structured and rehearsed.

It is working as it should in the current myrtle rust response.

MPI has a strong focus on having the capability in place, both within MPI and with a range of partners, to skilfully manage any biosecurity response.

The response teams work to a response model based on the CIMS system of emergency management.

MPI has invested heavily in training staff for responses and it practises through exercises on a continual basis.

There has been significant readiness work undertaken for an incursion of myrtle rust in New Zealand.

This work started in 2010 when myrtle rust was found in Australia with the knowledge that a myrtle rust incursion here was a real possibility.

Some of the more significant developments under that programme have been:

• Tough importing requirements enacted to stop any imports of plant material from myrtle species into New Zealand from Australia.
• New diagnostic protocols developed for rapid identification of the myrtle rust fungus and identifying the myrtle plant species it infects (which enabled a rapid ID for both Raoul Island and Northland).
• Myrtle rust made a priority for MPI's high-risk site surveillance programme. This programme has some 800 sites across the country (about 300 in Northland) where we look out for pests and diseases of concern, including myrtle rust.
• Ongoing and significant collaboration between MPI and science providers internationally on wind modelling, impacts on species overseas, testing impact of myrtle rust on NZ species offshore and the production of an antibody for the development of diagnostic lateral flow devices for rapid detection in the field.
• Continual collaboration with DoC, iwi, regional councils, growing industries and the science community - as recently as a forum in December 2016 where agreement was reached to work together and prioritise myrtle rust.

And there is a B3-organised workshop taking place in Christchurch on Monday.

Were our preparations for an incursion as good as they possibly could have been?

No biosecurity agency can ever claim that it is 100 per cent ready for every potential threat that could arrive.

That said, MPI was very well prepared for this situation.

The responses to the Raoul and Northland myrtle rust incursions have been exemplary.

Personnel were on the ground immediately [in Northland] and a large-scale response mounted.

The response effort has moved forward seamlessly.

At this point in time we have made good progress in isolating the known outbreak and attempting to contain it.

We have always said, however, that containing the spread of an organism that moves as microscopic spores on the wind [myrtle rust] will be a challenge.

Why is it only now that seed-banking efforts have ramped up?

In fact, seed banking of myrtaceous species has been underway since 2013 when a collaboration was set up between Massey University and Kew Gardens in the UK.

The effort has been given some impetus with the detection of myrtle rust on Raoul Island to help protect the genetic diversity of this plant family, in essence as an insurance policy.