Most of Lord Howe closed after fungal outbreak

An airborne fungus has shut down 70 per cent of Lord Howe Island as authorities race to save its unique ecosystem

Tourists will be banned immediately from walking through the world-heritage listed parks preserve area.

Most of Lord Howe Island had been closed due to a fungal threat to its unique ecosystem.

The Lord Howe Island Board announced on Monday the permanent park preserve will be closed after myrtle rust – a member of the fungal complex – was discovered on February 3.

The board said the rust had potential to change the way the island’s mountains and forests looked, alter ecology and affect world heritage values which was why the park preserves were being shut immediately.

Lord Howe Island mountain rose infected by myrtle rust.Credit:Jack Shick

The disease deforms plant leaves, resulting in heavy defoliation of branches, stunting growth and g potentially the plant. The island is home 241 different species of native plants, 105 of which are unique to the island making it heritage listed.

While a rapid response and treatment was initiated, the disease had since spread across most of the park preserve.

Myrtle rust is a plant disease that targets the myrtaceae family which includes bottlebrushes, eucalyptus, myrtle and eugenia.

The rust spreads through airborne spores and typically appears on leaves in the form of purple and brown lesions.

“It’s really hard to stop a wind borne fungus, it does spread more when the conditions are moist and humid,” chief executive of Invasive Species Council Andrew Cox said.

“The spores are like a power, so they can easily get on clothing or vehicles … so the main way of spreading it is through contact.”

Chair of Lord Howe Island Board and head of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Atticus Fleming said he was hopeful the invasive species would be eradicated, but cautioned it was too early to tell.

“There was an outbreak in 2016, which was eradicated. We’re obviously aiming to do the same thing now but there’s probably 10 to 12 weeks ahead of us before we know whether we will have been successful in doing that,” he said.

“There are quite a lot of unknowns around the impact of myrtle rust and particularly in an environment like Lord Howe Island … but how rapidly we’d see impact and how extensive those impacts would be, that’s still an unknown.”

The park’s closure will be assessed weekly by the island board as experts analyse the region in an attempt to stop the spread.

Stephen Sia said the main tourists affected by the island closure would be bushwalkers. Credit:Janet Taka

Stephen Sia runs Coral Cafe on the island and said the closed off area is primarily the national park which makes up 70 per cent of the island. However, people will still be able to walk around the settlement areas.

“At this time of the year we get a lot of working groups coming to the island and those will be the ones that will be mostly affected, the tourists who are planing to come here for bushwalking,” he said.

“The activities of the visitors are quite restricted when they get here, one of the biggest attractions of the island of course is the nature of the national park.”

The island’s native species have often been under threat, most recently the 2019 rat eradication program helped revive the ecosystem.

Cox said programs like the rat eradication on the island needed to be prioritised to prevent other invasive species.

“There is a real important need to make sure the island stays free from other invasive species … there’s a lot at stake from other biosecurity threats like myrtle rust, so I think this really needs a high priority,” he said.

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