The crop-eating pests known as brown marmorated stink bugs are causing major disruption to Australian supply chains.

According to Peter Anderson, chief executive at the Victorian Transport Association (VTA), heightened measures from local biosecurity authorities have seen at least three containerships and two ro-ro ships turned away from Australian ports in the last two months.

“Border force and quarantine have decided to ‘up the ante’ on it and exercise their authority a bit more than in previous years,” he explained, noting that the stink bug season spans September to April.

Source: Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR)

Anderson said the pests originate in Asia but can now be found in both North America and Europe.  The bugs have been detected on ships calling at Brisbane and Perth, where ships call before larger ports of Melbourne and Sydney.

“There’s a knock-on effect, of course, because they’ve either got to go to another port that will berth them and kill the bugs, or they go into the port they’re scheduled to call at.”

Anderson said that even if the ship berthed at its designated port, it takes days to delouse the ship, taking up valuable wharf space.  The contaminated vessels also have to berth in ‘isolation’ during the fumigation process, so that the bugs do not fly to nearby ships.

“In Brisbane wharf space is critical,” Anderson added. 

The resulting disruption extends to landside operations, too. For example, Anderson noted that with ships unable to load and unload; costs are rising for trucking companies and cargo owners who face potential detention and demurrage charges.

According to the Freight & Trade Alliance (FTA), millions of dollars are being paid by importers, customs brokers and freight forwarders due to the stink bug crisis.

“The direct costs to importers imposed by stevedores for storage and detention fees imposed by shipping lines for the late return of unpacked empty containers are rapidly escalating, adding to the costs associated with failure to meet supply demands,” said FTA director Paul Zalai.

The FTA said that some freight forwarders have resorted to the “desperate and expensive” measure of transhipping cargo at intermediary ports and airfreighting the goods into Australia.

“While a legitimate practice, it is anticipated that it will only be a matter of time before cargo arriving by air faces similar biosecurity scrutiny as that by sea with the potential threat of choking major Australian international airports,” the FTA noted.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) appears to have listened to the FTA’s concerns, having recently granted an independent review of border control measures and the stink bugs’ impact on trade.  

However, it is unclear whether the review will affect the proposed biosecurity import levy due to come into force in July. Expected to raise A$325 million over three years, A$10.02 will be charged per TEU, or A$1 per tonne of non-containerised cargo, with stevedores and port operators designated as the collection agents, according to FTA.

“The government needs some cash to compensate the initial costs they’ve incurred in biosecurity because they’ve decided to up the control measures,” said VTA’s Anderson.

“The issue we have is the government wants to collect from the industry – they want to put another levy on us and make us the tax collector.

“When they put a levy on the stevedores per container, they [the stevedores] won’t manage the cash flow themselves. They’ll get it from us, the landside operators, because we’re easy pickings. So once again we have to go to the customer and say, ‘you have to pay us more money’”.

The DAWR is recommending offshore treatment of breakbulk, containerised and reefer cargo prior to arrival of vessels in Australia from affected countries. They also state that contaminated ships will not be allowed to unload cargo in Australia until the cargo has been fumigated.

New Zealand is the only other country that does not allow cargo contaminated with stink bugs to land, without being fumigated first.