Joel Fostin examining a pandanus tree on the Sunshine Coast.
Joel Fostin examining a pandanus tree on the Sunshine Coast.

Killer insects invade region: Who you gonna call?

As he starts back on Noosa North Shore monitoring one of Queensland coast’s most loved growth assets, it’s little wonder the thoughts of the one man they send in to save our pandanus trees from creepy crawly mass deaths, turn to sci-fi action.

Joel Fostin does not bust ghosts, but he wipes out serious jamella plant hopper infestations with a wickedly clever wasp that stops the dieback in it tracks.

Noosa has growing crisis as it mounts pandanus fightback

Saving Noosa’s scene stealing trees

That’s no mean feat because in recent years the hopper menace had wiped out of a third of Fraser Island’s pandanus in the space of just seven years.

Joel Fostin is a man on a mission to preserve the pandanus for ourselves and our wildlife.
Joel Fostin is a man on a mission to preserve the pandanus for ourselves and our wildlife.

And in Noosa in November, 2018, it was reported his survey of 4200 pandanus plants along the Noosa Shire coastal zone and Noosa National Park revealed heavy infestations in high profile areas and low and decreasing population numbers.

Back then, Noosa Deputy Mayor Frank Wilkie said pandanus in Hastings St, Noosa Main Beach and Peregian Village were especially found to be heavily affected by leaf hopper outbreaks.

“Infection rates at Main Beach were found to have skyrocketed from zero trees in 2016 to 22 affected pandanus in 2018,” he said.

That’s when Fostin stepped in armed with the wasps and a tonne of community support plus funding from the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation to kill the hopper in its tracks.

This Eudlo-based USC graduate mission remains on constant vigilance to stop the horror of these shockingly visual mass kills from blighting our headlands from Noosa down to the Gold Coast and up as far as North Queensland.

Over the past six to seven years, Mr Fostin has rallied councils, community groups and park rangers to help release the aphanomerus wasp which lays its eggs beside the eggs of this hopper insect borer and eats them when they hatch.

The irony is that he once never gave pandanus a second thought, as he was more devoted to life as a furniture maker, tree lopper and then an Angus Water native nursery carer.

And the eventual uni student’s initial protective passion was directed at rainforests until this:

“I was back at Agnus surfing actually and all the pandanus were dead and gone around the headland there,” Mr Fostin said.

“So I had a break from uni, I had all this newly-acquired skills and research and realised the problem wasn’t getting addressed.

“I did a uni assignment on dieback and everything just unrolled. I realised there was no other human doing it, and if I don’t do no one is going to.”

And what he learnt during his journey has given him a profound respect for our signature headland tree canopy.

Joel Fostin checks out the damage.
Joel Fostin checks out the damage.

“I didn’t really rate pandanus, but along the journey I’ve learnt how much wildlife there is on them,” Mr Fostin said.

“There’s bugs on them, host specific insects that can’t live on any other plant.

“If you’ve seen the movie Avatar and the big mother tree the way it supports the whole community, that’s what pandanus do.

“They prevent erosion, they buffer the harsh, salt wind on the beach, they actually catch salt in the crown.

“They love it, but they protect the plants in behind them.”

He said these trees were a haven for bugs, spiders geckos, birds, native rodents, snakes, frogs and lizards.

“There’s a lot going on there, there’s roosting owls under them – they’re an irreplaceable habitat, there’s nothing like it,” he said.

“Initially no one had a management plan and tens of thousands of pandanus were dropping dead all over the place.

“Noosa and the Sunny Coast had 25 years of gradual episodes of dieback which had created a net result of a much-reduced population prior to the hopper.”

Mr Fostin said this was on top of previous sand mining and just gradual urbanisation across the Coast.

“Since the 90s not only has there been a gradual spread throughout Noosa, the Sunny Coast and the Gold Coast, everyone with a household pandanus tree will have hoppers in the canopy,” he said.

The wasps were first trialled at Noosa National Park but until he came along no one had developed a management plan to combat the dieback.

“The spread rate has sped up and new outbreaks have occurred outside the original outbreaks, sometimes in a new location for instance like up in the Livingstone Shire or up in the Bundaberg area,” he said.

The dead heart of the pandanus dieback problem.
The dead heart of the pandanus dieback problem.

“My main work is with the wasp … though it was known, no one had looked into and started to utilise it as the main biological control.”

Mr Fostin these days is upbeat about the outlook for the pandanus on the Coast especially, but without the ongoing releases of the wasp things could return the worst case scenario of Fraser.

“There was about 30,000 dead pandanus when I started there, it was carnage,” he said.

“It was such an extreme event that will ripple on for decades.”

He said there was an enormous amount of wildlife that has been displaced or lost now because of the lack of habitat.

Mr Fostin had to write the justification for the release of the wasp, which he undertook with the help of local rangers.

“That instantly stopped the death of another 20,000 that were directly under threat from the hoppers,” he said.

His overall assessment on the hopper versus the tree: “Things are going great, it’s been a five to six-year journey for me,” Joel said.

“I work for most councils across eastern Queensland.”

Our coastal pandanus populations are under threat.
Our coastal pandanus populations are under threat.

His plan requires twice-yearly monitoring of the entire population “virtually eyeballing every tree” and close inspections on ones showing signs of dieback.

He sees enormous value in educating the community groups so they are well informed.

“They’re growing and planting more so the long term populations are increasing,” he said.

“It’s taken a hit over the last 20 years, but now the momentum is well underway.

“I’ve done biannual monitoring all of this year for the Noosa Shire and before that I had a project with the Noosa Biosphere as well.

“Noosa National park does have funding in its management plan now since last year, but every other national park is understaffed an under resourced … it’s scary. The guys on the ground, there’s not enough of them.”

Mr Fostin said the ecosystems were being degraded as the budgets for what should be pandanus havens are spent on human infrastructure to make parks more visitor friendly.

And for all his progress, Mr Fostin said his work was never over.

“There are always problem areas where there are hopper outbreaks,” he said.

“I’m always coming in too late, where nothing’s been done and things are out of control and in that case you have to intervene.

“Sometimes it’s leaf stripping and other times you have to do the stem injection as much as I dislike it.

“When there’s a whole bunch of plants in trouble at once, things just get worse for everyone.”