Friday, July 18, 2008

July 14, 2008 - Darwin, Australia

We thought that New Zealand Quarantine was thorough when they cleaned us out last fall. We were expecting a similar experience in Australia. Yesterday, I made an offhand comment that it was a good thing that we had three sweet potatoes left so that we would have something to give Australian Quarantine. We could not have been more wrong. Compared to Australian Quarantine, the Kiwis barely looked at us.

We've never had a more thorough Customs and Quarantine experience. Between the three Customs officers, one dog handler (and his two dogs), and two Quarantine officers, Mata'irea has rarely had more people (and pets) on board. Everyone was very professional and courteous, but the rules they were implementing are strict and they adhered to them all.

The Customs officers were thorough, but quick. They reviewed out medical kit (which had one of the officers in stitches - "You could open a clinic with this!") and put both the valium and injectable morphine under seal in a cabinet. We didn't find anything offensive about their process or the outcome. They even gave us a recommendation for where to get a good bacon cheeseburger. As long as that seal comes off the cabinet without lifting the varnish, I'll be just fine with our Australian Customs experience. Quarantine was a different story entirely.

The two Quarantine officers (a supervisor and a trainee) were on board for several hours. They went through every storage space in which we keep food - regardless of whether it is fresh food, dry goods or canned goods storage. Now, keep in mind that we're only going to be in Australia for two weeks. The boat is not getting hauled out and none of the stuff on board is ever going to touch the Australian continent. I'd deem Mata'irea's threat to Australia's biosecurity to be minimal. Quarantine clearly didn't see it that way. Here is what they took:
  • sweet potatoes
  • whole onion
  • ginger root
  • sliced onion (in the fridge)
  • eggs
  • leftover lasagna
  • leftover pizza
  • fried banana chips
  • dried cherries
  • dried blueberries
  • sun dried tomatoes
  • walnuts
  • pecans
  • pistachio meats
  • whole pistachios
  • pine nuts
  • bay leaves
  • cloves
  • vanilla beans
  • whole nutmeg
  • poppy seeds
  • white sesame seeds
  • coriander seeds
  • cardamom seeds
  • wildflower green tea
  • dried mac 'n cheese mix
  • yogurt from Vanuatu
  • rendered bacon fat
  • popcorn
  • woven fans from Epi
There took lots of other stuff too. But I didn't see it go into the big yellow Quarantine bags because I was upstairs dealing with the Customs paperwork.

One of the two big bags of goods confiscated by Quarantine

We didn't expect any of this stuff, except for the sweet potatoes, onion, ginger, popcorn, and the yogurt and eggs from Vanuatu to be taken. Most of the items that were taken were either on board when we arrived in New Zealand, or were similar to items that New Zealand Quarantine allowed into New Zealand.

This all wouldn't be nearly as offensive if the rules were implemented consistently around the country, but they aren't. When friends of ours cleared in at a port on the East Coast of Australia a few weeks ago, they were allowed to keep raw meat. We weren't even allowed to keep cooked meat. Our lasagna and pizza were confiscated because it had cooked meat in it. If someone can explain to me what threat cooked meat poses to the livestock industry of Australia, I'd really appreciate it. Ditto on the bacon fat. I mean, seriously, bacon fat? Other than to my waist line, what is the threat there?

I understand that they needed to take our bay leaves and cloves. Apparently, both those spices can carry a fungus called guava rust, which can infect eucalyptus trees. Their removal was certainly justified. But most of our spices' only crime was that they were not in "commercial packaging." If I had poured these spices from St. Martin into old McCormick spice jars, they would have passed muster.

They took every nut they could find, regardless of whether they were in their shells or just meats. They also confiscated all of our dried fruits and vegetables. What threat does a dried vanilla bean pose? Vanilla doesn't grow spontaneously. It has to be pollinated by hand to create bean. The Quarantine officers at least had the decency to be apologetic about taking the vanilla. But they took it anyway.

To add insult to injury, we had to pay $240 AUD (approximately $233 USD) for the privilege of having our larder cleaned out. When we left New Zealand, the Australian Quarantine fee was $160 AUD. It is now half again as much as it was three months ago. In addition, I'm going to need to spend at least $200 AUD (approximately $194 USD) to restock my spice cabinet and dried goods. This makes Australia officially our most expensive clearance experience to date.

We know several boats that decided to go to Port Moseby in Papua New Guinea rather than to Australia to restock before continuing on to Indonesia. The combination of Australia's 96 hour notice rule and the draconian enforcement of the Quarantine rules creates a hell of a disincentive for cruisers to bring their boats and provisioning dollars to Australia. It is really saying something when people would choose to go to one of the more dangerous cities in the world to buy their rice and pasta rather than Darwin or Cairns. But I just don't think Australia is listening. The Australian meat industry and institutionalized bureaucracy are much more powerful lobbies than a couple of cruisers. Clearing our boat alone provided work for at least six government employees. Compare that to New Zealand where we were cleared by two people, or Bermuda (and almost every other country we've ever been to) where we were cleared by one official.

After we finished up with our spring cleaning, courtesy of Australian Quarantine, we headed into Darwin to do our duty free fuel paperwork at the Customs office, to make some appointments at the Travel Clinic, get our hairs cut, and, most important of all, rustle up some bacon cheeseburgers. We were still wiped out from passage, so it was an early night on Mata'irea.

1 comment:

CARSON said...

Dear Mata'irea,

My name is Carson Creagh, and I work for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service - AQIS (I'm also a sailor, so have enjoyed reading your blog).
I was concerned to read your comments about our inspection of your vessel in Darwin, so I contacted our officers there. They've reported that they were on board for one and a half hours, from 0915 to 1045 (a standard time for a yacht inspection)and that they inspected all areas where food was stored.
AQIS checks dried foods - especially nuts, seeds and grains - for khapra beetle, which is regarded as the world's worst pest of stored grains. Our officers found a number of insect-damaged packets and some other items were voluntarily surrendered because they were no longer wanted.
The rendered bacon fat wasn't commercially packaged or labelled, so it's not allowed into Australia because there's a risk it could be carrying diseases such as foot and mouth or classical swine fever. We also confiscated some uncanned cooked and uncooked meat that wasn't in commercial packaging.
The woven fans were made of plant material and contained live insects. Our officers showed the insects and the owners agreed to have the fans destroyed rather than pay for them to be treated.
Some of the spices taken showed evidence of insect infestation, and others couldn't be identified because they weren't in commercial packaging and weren't labelled.
Most of the nuts that were seized showed signs of insect damage and were voluntarily surrendered. Other nuts were in unmarked containers and couldn't be identified.
At no stage were any concerns raised with us about our inspection techniques, our seizures or the cost of the inspection. Our officers explained that AQIS charges for yacht clearances changed on 1 July this year while Mata'irea was en route to Australia from Vanuatu.
I've gone into detail to assure you, and readers of your blog, that we don't simply seize items: we're charged with helping to protect Australia from a very large range of exotic pest and disease risks and our actions are all based on scientific assessment of risks. We act to protect the very things that make Australia attractive to visitors, and we genuinely appreciate the support and assistance of visiting yachties.
We also have extensive information available on our website that provides details of what can and can't be allowed into Australia - go to