Most of Lord Howe Island has been closed to non-essential visitors due to an outbreak of myrtle rust, a highly contagious plant fungus.
Lord Howe’s permanent nature reserve, which covers around 70% of the World Heritage-listed island, has been “temporarily closed to all non-essential visitors with immediate effect,” the Lord Howe Island Board said.
Myrtle rust was discovered on the island on February 3rd. Despite ongoing treatment and preventive spraying of fungicides, weekly sweeps have identified three other infected sites, two of which are about 230m from the boundary of the park’s permanent reserve, the board said.
Atticus Fleming, chairman of the Lord Howe Island Board, told Guardian Australia that all four infected sites were within the island’s settled areas.
“It was the fact that they were close to the edge of it [preserve] That was the reason for the closure [it],” he said.
Myrtle rust affects plants of the Myrtaceae Family that includes eucalyptus, paperbarks, and tea trees. The fungus affects flower buds and new growth and impairs the ability of plants to photosynthesize.
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There is concern that myrtle rust could have an impact Myrtaceae Species endemic to the island including the mountain rose (Metrosideros nervulosa), the scale bark (Syzygium fullagarii) and the Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest, an endangered forest that crowns Mount Gower, the island’s highest mountain.
The fungus produces thousands of spores — which remain viable for up to three months — that are easily spread by wind, rain, and onto clothing, skin, hair, shoes, and gear.
“Due to the escalating risk, the closure of the permanent park reserve is being implemented to prevent spread from human activities,” the board said. “The rust has the potential to change the look of our mountains and forests, alter food webs and ecology, and potentially affect world heritage values.”
Around 50 local people attended an information session held at the island’s community hall on Thursday evening with experts from the NSW Department for Planning and the Environment and the Department for Primary Industries.
Fleming said the board will review the reservation’s closure on a weekly basis.
“Our goal here is to eradicate myrtle rust,” he said. “It will be a few weeks before we know if that was possible.”
“Given the importance of conservation values on the island, but also given the importance of these conservation values to the island’s economy, we will not take any chances.”
Prof Robert Park, director of Australia’s grain rust control program at the University of Sydney, said myrtle rust was first spotted in Australia on the NSW Central Coast in 2010.
“Rust is one of the most dreaded plant pathogens — it can spread thousands of miles quickly on wind currents and can cause huge losses in crop production,” Park said.
“Myrtle rust has rapidly invaded the entire east coast of Australia, causing the near extinction of at least three rainforest species. It was discovered and eradicated on Lord Howe Island in 2016 but has now managed to spread there again. This second incident clearly shows how incredibly difficult it is to deal with rust diseases once they have been introduced into a new region.”
Operators on the island would like to emphasize that during the closure of the reserve, other activities are open to tourists.
“With the exception of certain activities, we are still open for business,” said Stephen Sia, Treasurer of the Lord Howe Island Tourism Association. “There are still many places that visitors can visit… The settlement area itself is quite nice to walk around and all that  The beaches are open and people can still swim.”
Capella Lodge Media Manager Sarah Shields said: “The walks in the parks make up a large part of the island’s activities on offer, but at this time of year … you would be spending a lot more time in the water.
“March is truly a peak season for Lord Howe Island in terms of marine activity.
“The priority for the island right now is to stop the spread of myrtle rust everywhere… We’re supporting something [the island board] are in [but] We also want the board to find a way for the companies to co-exist as well while the board is dealing with this matter.
“It’s almost like Covid is visiting the island again – exactly three years ago we closed the island.”
The permanent conservation area, which also includes Ball’s Pyramid and the neighboring islands of Lord Howe, was established in 1982 to protect the area’s biodiversity. It is home to 241 native plant species, more than 100 of which are only found on the island.