The dangers of the invasive Little Fire Ant to Samoa

ABOVE: Keep an eye out for The Little Fire Ant and call it in if spotted (© Pacific Invasive Ant Key)

(CI Samoa article seventeen published by the Samoa Observer.)

With the threat of the invasive Little Fire Ant (LFA) now at Samoa’s doorstep — after being detected within our neighboring island, American Samoa (AS) — Samoa’s biosecurity team is on high alert with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) leading the charge with various awareness campaigns.

“Samoa Quarantine has temporarily suspended permits allowing for the public to import plant or planting materials and all other agricultural fresh produces from all LFA host countries,” explains the Assistant Chief Executive Officer of the Samoa Quarantine Services, Lupeomanu Pelenato Fonoti, in an interview with CI Samoa.

“In addition, low toxic insect sprays are being applied on most imported cargoes from AS and other countries hosting the LFA. These are clearly stressed in the current public notices, both in Samoan and English, which is currently out in the media.”

“We are doing alright so far with the implementation of these measures but the only issue we anticipate is the behavior of the public in compliance with such notices. We also welcome any suspicious citing of any type of ant from the public so that we can seek identification as there are many other ants which do not cause serious problems compared to the LFA.”

But what exactly are invasive species and what makes this invasive LFA particularly threatening?

According to David Moverley, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme’s (SPREP) Invasive Species Advisor; invasive species are organisms which are not native to an area but travel there through various means and have a crippling effect on environment ecosystems.

One example of a crippling effect, explained by Mr. Moverley, is how the LFA may kill off birds and other insects which are needed for Samoa’s ecosystem to survive and once weakened by this invasive ant, the affected ecosystem may find it hard to recover.

“The LFA is a very bad invasive species and is probably within the top ten (priority level) of invasive species which should be eradicated and removed from any country,” Mr. Moverley explained during an interview with CI Samoa.

“There are many reasons why they are such bad pests, and some of these reasons are; they basically impact all of the biodiversity and can really harm various animals by blinding or killing them (wild animals, livestock or even pets).

“They have a lot of traits that are very impactful, due to the way they live, which makes them a particularly bad invasive species.”

Furthermore, aside from indirect impacts on humans through the damaging of ecosystems, LFA’s also directly harm people when they come into contact with them.

“For Samoa to stay on top of the LFA, the people need to be aware of what it looks like so they can recognize it,” he said. “The most common way they are detected is when someone gets bitten. The bad thing about these ants is that they are very small and they can live on top of trees or any other surrounding. On a windy day, you might find 20 of them landing on you and when you accidentally kill one, their defensive mechanism will make the rest attack you.

“They are very dangerous towards children and the elderly. So the people need to know what to look out for and to report them as soon as they are spotted.”

Mr. Moverley went on to explain that, once introduced into a new area, they breakout very quickly. Due to their tiny size, they may be carried by strong winds during cyclones or they can band together to form a raft and disperse by floating atop flood waters.

But the most common way they spread is via humans. They hide in coolers, woven mats, crops, plant nurseries and so on, which houses them while people take them from one place to another.

“Until now, Samoa has been far away from places LFA’s are found,” Mr. Moverley said.  “Personally I wasn’t expecting the LFA to be at Samoa’s doorstep anytime soon but since they’ve arrived into AS, via Hawaii, the LFA is now a direct threat to us, if they haven’t arrived already.”

LFAs are also known to be detected late in their invasion-period and usually when they are already deep within a nation’s borders or when they have already spread too much to be controlled. 

The President of the Samoa Conservation Society (SCS), James Atherton, explains that controlling a species such as the LFA is a tough task – which is why preventing them from entering the nation in the first place is the ideal solution.

“Prevention is better than the cure so it really is a biosecurity issue at the moment; MAF is the biosecurity agency in Samoa and they are, with the public’s support, responsible for securing our borders and keeping new invasive species out,” he explained. “So at the moment MAF and MNRE, have started an awareness programme and the point of this response is to raise awareness of this threat and to give a bit of information on what it looks like. We don’t want this particular ant here and they are called ‘fire’ ants for a reason, their bite can give a real burning pain.

“So the first stage is to prevent it from coming in but if we fail to do that then we need to move onto stage two — which is the emergency response stage.”

Samoa’s Invasive Species Emergency Response Plan (SISERP) is a document developed by MAF and MNRE, including MNRE’s Disaster Management Office, which details strategies and phases to eradicate new invasive species found in Samoa, but has yet to be endorsed by cabinet.

Mr. Atherton is adamant that this document needs to be finalized as soon as possible in order to help better protect Samoa from new invasive species, such as LFA.

“Hopefully this potential threat of the invasive LFA will push the formal endorsement of the SISERP, so that we are ready to respond in a coordinated way, should the LFA be found within Samoa’s borders,” he explained.  “The first line of any detection is the general public and we want the population of Samoa to be our early detectors of any invasive species threat as it is simply not possible for Government staff to be everywhere at all times to detect all new incursions. The public are best placed to spot new incursions or arrivals of invasive species and call them in.

“This is all under this emergency plan document which really needs to be endorsed and activated before training all the necessary people to undertake tasks against this issue.”

Furthermore, Mr. Atherton also explained that assisting the Government by helping to spread awareness and making sure the public is alert is one of the roles of Samoa’s environmental NGOs (such as SCS, CI Samoa and so on).

It is also believed that there needs to be continued strong biosecurity between the two Samoa’s with regards to invasive species. With many of Samoa’s past invasive species outbreaks – such as the taro leaf blight in the early 90s, the African snail in the mid 90s, and numerous sightings of cane toad throughout the 90s — coming in from AS, the role of tight biosecurity between the two Samoa’s needs to be highlighted.

So with this LFA threat lingering over our island nation, let us all band together and help keep the LFA and other invasive pests out by; taking note of all public notices, cooperate and follow quarantine measures currently in place, refrain from smuggling any planting materials and so on.

The Ministries urge the public if they see any suspicious ants to please call MAF 20924 or 7767305 or MNRE 67200 or 7538881.