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Stowaway Rat Forces Australian Freighter to Quarantine for a Week

island trader
Island Trader at Lord Howe Island (File image courtesy Spelio / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Published Sep 25, 2022 11:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

Earlier this month, a ship that delivers essential supplies to a remote island off the coast of Australia was forced to quarantine in line with biosecurity laws after a single rat was detected onboard.

The MV Island Trader, the ship that carries supplies to the 350 residents of Lord Howe Island, was forced to quarantine at Port Macquarie after a live rodent was detected onboard by trail cameras. Loading was quickly halted while the ship was searched by dogs.

The Lord Howe Island Board (LHIB) said that the trailcam footage was reviewed, and with no evidence on the video that the rodent had left the ship, a decision was made to quarantine the vessel. The board activated a contingency plan and asked the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to fly emergency supplies to the island.

Island Trader, a general cargo ship built in 1981 and operated by contractor Birdon, is required to meet high standards of biosecurity to prevent rats and other biosecurity risks entering the island. The Australian government has spent tens of millions of dollars to remove rats from Lord Howe Island's ecosystem, and it does not want to risk a new infestation.

“We would like to extend a very big thank you to the RAAF for their continued assistance and cooperation as we work with Birdon to ensure the best possible outcomes for the community whilst maintaining appropriate biosecurity for the island,” said Debbie Johnsen, LHIB acting CEO.

After a call with independent rodent experts, the team decided to unload the ship to ensure it could be fully checked, then hold the vessel for seven rodent free days. After completing the quarantine, Island Trader was cleared to depart on Thursday and has resumed her normal route.

Lord Howe Island, which covers an area of only 14.5 square kilometers, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list thanks to its natural beauty and diversity. Rats arrived on the island in a wrecked freighter in 1918, and they have been exceptionally harmful to its native birds, many of which are found nowhere else; rat predation on Lord Howe has already contributed to the extinction of five bird species, at least 13 species of invertebrates, and two plant species, according to the board. 

A multi-million-dollar eradication program involving aerial dispersion of rat poison pellets began in 2019, and a mop-up campaign eliminated another 100 rats last year. Within a matter of a few years, the cleanup is already allowing some endangered bird species to repopulate the island, according to the board.

Top image: Island Trader at Lord Howe Island (Spelio / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)