Fall armyworm found in WA for the first time

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Fall armyworm.
Camera IconFall armyworm. Credit: James Castner

An exotic pest with the potential to decimate crops overnight has been found in WA for the first time, after detections in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

A single fall armyworm moth, or Spodoptera frugiperda, was found in a Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development surveillance trap in Kununurra last month.

The armyworm had to undergo diagnostic testing to confirm whether it was indeed a fall armyworm, with confirmation received on Wednesday.

The discovery is bad news for Australia’s $60 billion agriculture industry, because the pest can cause significant production losses with larvae known to feed on more than 350 plant species — including cotton, maize, rice, sorghum, wheat, fruit and vegetable crops.

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DPIRD chief plant biosecurity officer Sonya Broughton said the department was working with industry stakeholders and other state and territory jurisdictions in “preparing for and minimising the impact” of the pest as it “becomes more broadly established”.

“Sentinel trapping in WA is being expanded to help provide early advice to industry and about presence of the pest in regional area,” Dr Broughton said.

“We have monitored traps in Kununurra since October last year, with an additional 50 lure traps being rolled out across Kununurra, Broome, Carnarvon, Geraldton and Kalumburu.

“We will be offering a webinar conference with Kununurra growers to discuss management options.”

The detection comes just weeks after larvae of the fall armyworm were found in a trial maize crop near Georgetown, 300km west of Cairns.

It was the first time the pest had been detected on Australia’s mainland.

A month earlier, the moth-like caterpillar was found in the Torrest Strait region, on the islands or Erub and Saibai, as well as the region’s nothernmost mainland town Bamanga.

The Queensland detection of a crop-eating pest capable of travelling 500km during its short lifespan has Australia’s $60 billion agriculture industry on high alert.

Australia’s key technical body for co-ordinating national responses to emergency plant incursions has waved the white flag at the pest.

On February 24, the Consultative Committee on Emergency Plant Pests declared it was not “technically feasible” to eradicate fall armyworm from Australia.

The invasive moth feeds on hundreds of plant species and has been on a march across the world since 2016.

Its two subpopulations, Corn-strain and Rice strain, favour corn, cotton and sorghum crops, and rice, millet and pasture respectively.

Permits are in place for fall armyworm control in horticulture and grains crops, with more information available from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority website.

To report a sighting, call the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881.

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