It may not look like much, but a tiny bug detected at a major airport presents a major threat to Australia.
It may not look like much, but a tiny bug detected at a major airport presents a major threat to Australia.

Why this tiny bug is such a big threat

TINY bugs that have the potential to wreak havoc on Australia's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry are being regularly detected at Cairns Airport.

The Department of Agriculture has revealed that its biosecurity officials are seizing an average of five packages a week at the airport infested with flat mites.

The microscopic insects are regarded as a major plant feeding pest, particularly on citrus plants. The bugs not only feast upon plants, but also have the potential to carry plant diseases, threatening the nation's more than $60 billion agriculture industry.

Mites were most recently detected at Cairns Airport in mid-October in a plastic bag of mustard stick - the fruit of the betel plant - that a passenger travelling from Papua New Guinea failed to declare when entering Australia.

A Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said bio­security officers at the airport inspected an average of 23 consignments of mustard stick at the airport each week, 22 per cent of which were detained due to live mites being identified during the inspection.

"Failure to declare mustard stick on the IPC (Incoming Passenger Card) may result in an individual receiving a $420 minimum fine, or prosecution," the department spokeswoman said.

Between January and November last year, about 3000 items were seized from travellers at the airport by biosecurity officials.

The department's spokeswoman said the list included more than 500 meat items, more than 400 plant items, about 600 pieces of fruit and 200 vegetables.

"Under Australia's strict biosecurity laws, a person may be prosecuted, imprisoned for up to 10 years, fined up to $420,000, and get a criminal record," she said.

"In addition, under recent changes to migration legislation, international visitors can have their visitor visa cancelled and be refused entry to the country for serious breaches of Australia's biosecurity laws at the airport."