Australia isn't ready for ravages of bird flu: warning

Australia's environment ministers are dangerously unprepared for the arrival of a virus that's been wiping out wildlife around the world for years, critics say.

A deadly strain of bird flu has been sweeping the globe killing legions of poultry and wild birds but also mammals including seals and sea lions.

Domestic animals including dogs, cats and farm animals are also at risk.

Experts fear it could reach Australia within months as migratory birds arrive for spring. 

But the issue wasn't on the agenda when Tanya Plibersek met state and territory environment ministers three weeks ago, with preparedness efforts being led by the federal agriculture department.

Conservation groups are appalled given the devastation H5 High Pathogenicity Avian Influenza has caused overseas in recent years.

South America, for example, has suffered extraordinary losses of marine mammals including sea lions, dolphins and otters and there has been 17,000 elephant seal pup deaths at a single site in Argentina.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek
Tanya Plibersek has been accused of complacency over bird flu threats to Australia's wildlife.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt on Wednesday announced a $7 million to boost Australia's readiness for the virus, which is different to the one affecting Australian poultry farms.

Most of it will go to surveillance programs and to Animal Health Australia, which is investigating the potential of commercial avian influenza vaccines.

But the Invasive Species Council says there's been a wholesale failure by environment ministers to prepare for impacts on native wildlife, including endangered species such as Australian sea lions.

Recent research has provided strong evidence of mammal-to-mammal transmission but experience overseas shows animals such as seals and sea lions are most likely to get sick by eating infected birds.

In Europe, mortality rates in some species have been greatly reduced with the deployment of teams to collect infected carcasses.

Invasive Species Council campaigner Jack Gough wants to know where site-specific response plans are for places such as Kangaroo Island, which has the third largest breeding colony of Australian sea lions.

"This is probably the biggest immediate threat to wildlife we have,'' Mr Gough says.

"This will be on the scale of the Black Summer bushfires in terms of impact if it turns up.

"Environment departments have washed their hands of the issue because they see it as an agriculture department issue - that is the fundamental problem."

The council's Carol Booth says there's an urgent need for states and territories to gear up and have standardised responses and coordinators in each jurisdiction.

"We also need a national task force to drive implementation and collaboration between governments," Dr Booth says.

Ms Plibersek's office has rejected the criticisms, saying the environment and agriculture departments have been working on preparedness for months.

"The Australian government has been working hand-in-glove with state and territory environment departments to coordinate preparedness efforts, drawing on the experience of events such as the 2019 bushfires," a spokesperson for the minister said.

"National Parks and the Australian Antarctic Division have also been developing detailed monitoring, preparedness, and response plans."

Ms Plibersek has promised to ward off any new extinctions in Australia but the Biodiversity Council has suggested that promise will be tougher to keep if bird flu arrives.

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