Rabbit Control, RCD: Dilemmas and Implications

  • John Luxton
Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control

1 The Terrace, Wellington

Firstly, I would like to thank the New Zealand Association of Scientists for inviting me to open this conference on rabbit calicivirus or rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, as it is known internationally. The programme looks interesting and I am sure that over the two days of the conference there will be some useful discussion on biosecurity and some of the issues associated with using viruses to control animal pests.

Although I was not Minister for Biosecurity at the time of the outbreak of rabbit calicivirus disease in New Zealand - I have come here today to open this conference as I recognise that there is considerable interest in rabbit calicivirus related issues. Also I wish to set a challenge for participants in this conference - I?ll come back to this in a few minutes.

Rabbit calicivirus was investigated as a potential biocontrol tool because the control of rabbits by conventional means was failing in some areas. A joint New Zealand and Australian programme was established and research began to determine its suitability as a biocontrol agent. An application to import rabbit calicivirus was received in 1996. It was evaluated by Dr Peter O?Hara, Deputy Director General of the then Ministry of Agriculture - and as you are all aware, declined. Dr O?Hara is scheduled to talk on this tomorrow, so I won?t discuss this further other than to say that I am aware that there was considerable consultation undertaken in the process. Also, I would ask that you take great care during the course of conference discussions to distinguish this process - that is, the evaluation of an application to import rabbit calicivirus - from the Government?s response to the presumed illegal introduction of rabbit calicivirus, an event that necessitated very different processes.

On the 27th of August last year, MAF confirmed that rabbits, found dead on two properties in the Cromwell area, had died of rabbit calicivirus disease. MAF declared a controlled area with the intention of attempting to contain the spread of the virus. The issue for the government was how best to deal with the situation. It soon became clear that rabbit calicivirus was already widespread and that neither containment nor eradication were then technically feasible. In order to eradicate rabbit calicivirus all stock would have had to be removed from the farms that it had been found on and large amounts of 1080 based baits then used to try to kill all the rabbits present. Other measures would still have had to be used to ensure that every last rabbit was killed. Even if all of this had occurred, it was still unlikely that the virus could have been contained or eradicated.

I am aware that some people still dispute this. The fact that Mexico was able to eradicate the disease is often held up as an example. However, I am advised that in Mexico the disease occurred amongst farmed rabbits and there was no wild population of European rabbits with which the virus could spread. Some people have suggested that the rabbit calicivirus may die out if no further use of the virus occurs. It was known at the time the government started considering its options, that even if intentional spread of rabbit calicivirus was curtailed, there was a possibility that the virus would spread by natural means. What was not known was how effective this means of spread would be. We now know that natural spread occurs and in some areas this type of spread is just as, if not more effective than using rabbit calicivirus as a biocide.

The government recognised early on that it was important to monitor the spread of rabbit calicivirus. There was a need to know what was happening to non-target species of animals and to increase surveillance of predator activity in high priority conservation areas. Also, the free exchange of information was needed for research and monitoring to allow for the safe and effective use of the virus. This information is still important.

Initially there were legal impediments that prevented the necessary flow of information. These legal impediments resulted from the transitional provisions in the Biosecurity Act, relating to the Animals Act 1967. Last September, the Minister for Biosecurity received advice that Regulations could be made under the Biosecurity Act 1993 to remove the legal impediments under the Animals Act 1967. The Minister consulted with affected parties and the government promulgated the Regulations on the 24th of September 1997 making it no longer an offence for farmers to possess or spread the virus. In addition, the government introduced a Bill to validate and revoke the Regulations. The third reading of the Bill was completed last Thursday, so that the Biosecurity (Rabbit Calicivirus) Amendment Bill should be enacted from this afternoon.

In deciding to make the Regulations, the government weighed up the risk of being seen as rewarding those who may have broken the law, against the advantages of being able to source vital information about the use and spread of the virus. I assure you that the steps taken were not taken lightly by the government. That is why MAF is still pursuing those who may have intentionally imported the virus into New Zealand. The new Act replaces the Regulations, and does not, in any way, remove the potential to prosecute anyone found to have illegally imported the virus.

The government considers any breach of New Zealand?s Biosecurity as a serious matter. Since I have been the Minister for Biosecurity, I have heard it said that the virus was introduced illegally because people were forced into the situation. I would like to say here and now, there are no excuses for breaching New Zealand?s biosecurity.

One of the more contentious issues surrounding the whole rabbit calicivirus debate has been the effect of rabbit calicivirus on non-target species. This topic is scheduled to be discussed in considerable detail at this conference and I am not going to get into the discussion here - other than to say, that during the consultation processes surrounding the regulations and the Bill, this issue was approached by some as though rabbit calicivirus is not in New Zealand.

People raised concerns that rabbit calicivirus was unstable and dangerous - yet they did not consider that getting information to mitigate against any potential risks was important. Whether you believe rabbit calicivirus is dangerous or of low risk, does not alter the fact that it is in New Zealand and that there is no zero risk option - we cannot get rid of it, so we must deal with it using a pragmatic risk management approach. That is how the government has had to deal with the virus being in New Zealand - it assessed what needed to be done to minimise the potential risks that it may represent. This approach requires the two-way flow of information. The legalising of rabbit calicivirus allow this.

Some people have raised with me such matters as - rabbit calicivirus won?t be an effective rabbit control tool - or that New Zealand does not have a rabbit problem. One even asked what had rabbits done to harm us, meaning humans - and, why should the government condone harming rabbits by legalising rabbit calicivirus. Whether rabbit calicivirus works or not - or whether there is a rabbit problem or not - does not change the fact that rabbit calicivirus is present in New Zealand and what?s more, widespread! It in no way changes the need for information to mitigate against potential risk.

That said, I still have a serious concern at the apparent ability of some determined individuals to breach our biosecurity net at the border. The agricultural sector and New Zealand at large are very dependent upon our current border control systems. This case raises real questions as to whether we are doing all we should?

Earlier I said that I would issue a challenge to conference participants. My challenge is for participants to identify anything further that could be reasonably done to mitigate against potential risks, bearing in mind that rabbit calicivirus is established in New Zealand. It is all very well to discuss the risks and concerns - but when all said and done, I suspect many will recognise that the government?s response to rabbit calicivirus in New Zealand was the only responsible approach that could have been taken and continues to be the only prudent response.

Having issued my challenge to participants, I will finish by wishing you all a stimulating conference. Thankyou.