MANILA, OCTOBER 10, 2003  (STAR) By Rocel C. Felix - The Department of Agriculture (DA), through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), has agreed to comply with the new import rules of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) requiring the fumigation of cargo coming from countries where giant African snails (GAS) exist.

BFAR director Malcolm Sarmiento Jr. has asked the BPI to help carry out the new AQIS directive.

"Since BPI, through its quarantine services, has vast experience on fumigation procedure for export products, we would like to seek your assistance in implementing this new AQIS directive as an effort to prevent any untoward delays to fishery products exportation into Australia," said Sarmiento in his letter to BPI director Blo Umpar Adiong.

The two DA-attached agenciesí quarantine service personnel will be working closely in the pre-border inspection and fumigation procedures at various ports and will provide the required documents as clearance and compliance to the new AQIS directive.

In a recent directive, AQIS required pre-border quarantine restrictions in all Philippine international ports, except the Manila South Harbor due to its identification of these areas as probable GAS sources.

The directive caught exporters off-guard because they were not informed of this new development and became aware of it only when international shipping lines such as Maersk Sealand stopped accepting shipments to Australia from all Philippine ports such as General Santos, Davao, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Subic.

However, shipments coming from Manila are still being accepted because the cityís piers have complete fumigation facilities.

Australian Ambassador to Manila Ruth Pierce, however, denied there is an existing ban on food and non-food products to Australia coming from all ports of the Philippines except Manila.

"There is no such ban, and itís just a matter of shipping protocol that should be dealt with by the exporters and the shipping companies themselves," said Pierce.

In a press statement, the Australian Embassy in Manila said Australia permits the entry of containers from anywhere in the world, including from countries known to have the GAS.

For countries where GAS exist, AQIS requires that cargoes found to have the snails, are subject to fumigation in Australia to prevent the accidental introduction of these snails on shipping containers.

However, a source from Cebuís furniture export industry insisted that the shipping companies were acting on a directive from the AQIS to specifically ban the entry of cargoes that did not go through the ports in Manila.

"The shipping companies are refusing cargo based on the AQIS ruling because they of course would not want to take chances," said the source.

The prohibition was imposed due to the alleged presence of GAS in container vans that reached Australiaís ports in late July this year.

"We will be asking Australian quarantine authorities to review its order because it is too unfair," said Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr. earlier, adding that it wasnít even established that the GAS found in container vans coming from the Philippines really originated from the country.

With the ban still in place, Cebuís furniture exporters are starting worry. Last month, about $6 million worth of products, including processed seaweeds, were barred from entering Australia because of the new import restrictions imposed by the AQIS.

AQIS included the Philippines in its list of "high-risk" GAS countries which require mandatory inspection before containers are released to prevent transporting the voracious snails which are considered as an agricultural pest.

Australian quarantine authorities have imposed more rigid inspection rules because of several reported incidence of the presence of GAS in container vans reaching its ports, but reports are unclear if all of these were found in containers coming from the Philippines.

GAS have a lifespan that can last up to six years. They feed on many types of crops and ornamentals as well as organic matter, excreta and any organic refuse. They can become destructive to crops if left unchecked. The snail pest can be easily transported between countries.

It attaches itself to containers, secondhand vehicles, used machinery, empty bottles and other materials which have been left lying on the ground for sometime. It is extremely difficult to eradicate this pest from an area once it has become established.

Cebuís exporters are initiating talks with the Department of Trade and Industry and the DA to reconsider its new import restrictions.

"It is not even confirmed that the snails found came from the Philippines. There must be an investigation so that its origin could be traced. It could be that the container vans from the Philippines were contaminated by other containers coming from other countries in the region," said one furniture exporter from Cebu.

Australia belongs to the top 10 markets of Cebuís thriving furniture exports industry.

The other countries listed as high-risk GAS countries are East Timor, the Hawaiian Islands, Guam, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesian countries such as Tahiti, Moorea and Society Islands; the Federated States of Micronesia, New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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