The NSW Department of Primary Industries have confirmed the detection of three red imported fire ant nests - with surveillance ongoing - in South Murwillumbah in north-eastern NSW, 13 kilometres south of the Queensland border.
This is the first fire ant detection in Northern NSW and presumed to be the most southern report of fire ants from the Queensland infestation.
The detection in NSW triggers the National Fire Ant Eradication Program response which is part of the $600 million eradication plan developed by the Australian governments.
The NSW Government is working closely with the Commonwealth and the Queensland Governments, plus Tweed Shire Council. Experienced teams are on site chemically eradicating the infestation across a radius of 200 metres from the found sites.
Following detection of the fire ants the National Plan releases four subsequent actions - eradication, control, tracing and communications.
NSW DPI are leading the control, tracing, and communications by implementing an emergency biosecurity order across a radius of five kilometres from the site in South Murwillumbah.
All businesses and residents within that radius are restricted in how they can move potential fire ant carrier materials without permission. The following types of materials are restricted: mulch, woodchips, compost, sand, gravel, soil, hay and other baled products.
NSW DPI Officers and detection dogs are working on determining the extent of the infestation, undertaking genetic testing of the fire ants, and searching all properties within the control radius.
About fire ants
Fire ants are dark reddish-brown with a darker black-brown abdomen and range in size from two to six millimetres long. Their ant nests are distinctive mounds of loose, crumbly or fluffy looking soil with a honeycomb appearance, up to 40 centimetres high, with no obvious entrance holes.
Red imported fire ants can damage electrical and agricultural equipment, sting people, pets and livestock, kill native plants and animals, and damage ecosystems beyond repair.
Those who breach the emergency biosecurity order could face significant penalties with fines for breaches reaching up to $1.1 million for an individual and up to $2.2 million for a corporation.
Minister for agriculture Tara Moriarty said the government has "immediately implemented our response plan".
"I have spoken with my counterpart in Canberra, Senator Watt, and local parliamentary representatives across governments so that we are all aligned and actioning our prepared plans," Ms Moriarty said.
"I am in contact with our teams on the ground who are enforcing the emergency control order, tracing where this infestation may have originated from and monitoring the immediate chemical eradication of the fire ants.
"Our teams are focused on limiting further spread, and encouraging reporting and compliance through a targeted communications campaign.
"Red imported fire ants are a terrible invasive pest, which cause serious social, economic, and environmental harm, which is why the Minns Government this year committed $95 million towards the National Fire Ant Eradication Program.
"Biosecurity is a shared responsibility, and as our fire ant response ramps up in northern NSW, I encourage everyone to continue to check their properties for these pests. With the Christmas cross-border travel season approaching, we all must be careful of what we're moving and where."
Leader of The Nationals and Shadow Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said confirmation red imported fire ants have been found in New South Wales for the first time proves Labor was too slow to act.
Three fire ants nests have been located in South Murwillumbah, 13 kilometres south of the Queensland/New South Wales border.
Mr Littleproud warned more than a month ago that Labor's $268 million over four years in federal funding to eradicate fire ants risked not being enough.
"The whole country has been put at risk of fire ants because Labor was too slow to act," Mr Littleproud said.
"The Response Plan in July said $592 million was required over the next four years to control the pest, including immediate funding for 2023-24.
"The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program strategic review also estimated that at least $200 to $300 million per year was required. Labor's funding was needed five months ago, which put the time-critical response at risk.
"It has been obvious for some time the funding was not going to be enough. The lack of action and the delays in funding undermined previous work that had been done under the Coalition Government to control fire ants."
Mr Littleproud added it took The Nationals to call for a Senate inquiry into the matter for Labor to finally act, but that was still too little, too late.
NSW Farmers response
In a statement, New South Wales Farmers said the "incursion is a threat to agricultural production and to the landscape of NSW."
"The ants can damage agricultural equipment, sting livestock, and damage the natural environment," the statement said.
"Authorities must act quickly to eradicate this population of Red Imported Fire Ants.
"The NSW Department of Primary Industries has done so before when there was a detection at Port Botany in 2014 and they must do so again.
"The entry of Red Imported Fire Ants into New South Wales demonstrates the urgent need for increased investment by all governments to support biosecurity.
"NSW Farmers has called for greater focus on biosecurity for many years.
"Red Imported Fire Ants should have been eradicated 20 years ago but ineffective management in Queensland enabled them to become established.
"We want Red Imported Fire Ants eradicated not only in New South Wales, but in Queensland where this incursion originated.
"We call on everyone to comply with all directions and restrictions introduced by the NSW Government.
"By doing the right thing, we can work together to keep these pests contained so that they can be eradicated."
In July this year fire ants were on the agenda at the first face-to-face meeting of the nation's Agriculture Ministers in three years, the federal and state governments agreed to bring forward $60 million already allocated to fight the pest over the following 12 months.
The figure falls well short of the required amount according to a 2021 government report, which found $200 to 300 million was required every year over 10 years eradicate fire ants in south-east Queensland.
The Invasive Species Council had high hopes that after two years of delays, the meeting would provide genuine leadership and a serious funding package.
But instead of a funding boost, the government reduced the annual spend by one-third, spokesperson Reece Pianta said.
"A fire ant invasion will be much worse than the cane toad," Mr Pianta said.
"They will devastate our native wildlife and cause billions of dollars in lost agricultural production every year.
"In Queensland we are already seeing sports fields and beaches closed due to the extremely painful sting inflicted by fire ants."