MPI appeal to stop another ‘didymo-style’ outbreak

Three Marimo moss balls are “out there” and the Ministry of Primary Industries wants people to hand them in before another didymo-type biosecurity outbreak happens.

The moss balls were sold through Trademe and stalls in Christchurch over the 2015-16 summer, some of them in terrariums created by botanic artist Raquel Miranda.

People who have them can hand them in to the ministry, and they can expect a refund.

“Three are out there, unaccounted for. We have recovered 11,” said MPI inspector Jonathan Cowie, who is the officer in charge of the case.

“Bring them to the MPI,” he said, hoping the message would reach people who had bought them, during his evidence at the one-day trial in the Christchurch District Court. “Don’t dispose of them into waterways. Even a small filament can create a moss ball which can grow and lead to a didymo situation.”

Trial Judge Jane Farish said in her judgment: “Marimo moss balls have the potential to ruin the lakes and rivers of New Zealand if they were allowed to be introduced. A very small particle is all that is required, given that they are algae and can multiply very quickly.”

The ministry has prosecuted the 38-year-old Brazilian woman who creates and sells terrariums as part of her Arte Viva Living Art venture in Christchurch.

Miranda says she bought the moss balls through the Chinese online retail site, AliExpress, and sold them on Trademe and through stalls at the Sumner Summer Market and the Riccarton Market.

Miranda said she had studied horticulture at university and had been in New Zealand nine years where she worked as a botanic artist.

“I didn’t know they were prohibited. Because other things I bought (online from overseas) came through, I didn’t really think about it,” she said in her recorded DVD interview which was played at the judge-alone trial before Judge Jane Farish.

She said she did not make any checks on whether the moss balls were legal to bring in.

Miranda has denied four charges: obtaining a new organism and failing to tell the ministry of its presence, recklessly obtaining the unauthorised organisms, selling them, and making a misleading statement to MPI biosecurity inspectors by not immediately disclosing the number of moss balls she had.

The trial was told that she believed some of the ones she had were artificial, but testing later showed they were real.

Compliance inspector Richard Notley explained that the ministry’s website did not have a list of plants that could not be imported, but there was a list of plants that were allowed. He said there were simply millions of plants around the world. It was impractical to have every plant listed. “Only plants that are permitted into New Zealand are on the MPI data-base.”

Algae expert with Landcare Research at Lincoln, Dr Phillip Novis, said he had examined the Marimo moss balls sent to him and identified them. It was not known if they were dangerous to New Zealand, but they were excluded as a precaution.

They were seen as “a kind of treasure” in Japan, and were protected, but in New Zealand there was a risk that it could “smother” the very clean waterways. There was a concern that native “meadows” on lake bottoms could be screened out by the moss balls. It was very difficult to restore lake bottoms once that happened.

Judge Farish said it was clear from the interview that Miranda made no checks ahead of importing the moss balls about whether they were prohibited. Miranda had assumed she could bring them in, and now faced a charge that she “recklessly” obtained them.

Defence counsel Nicola Hansen said that even if she had made the checks, she would not have found the information she needed from the ministry’s website.

The judge said: “It may be that as a result of this case and the deficiencies you have pointed out, they may change their website.”

Miss Hansen told the court that after being approached by the inspectors, Miranda had made great efforts to recover the moss balls she had already sold. Notices were put up at her stalls, asking people to return them for a full refund. Three remained unaccounted for.

Judge Farish dismissed the charge of making a misleading statement to an inspector, but found the other three charges proved. She remanded Miranda to June 20 for a hearing on whether there should a discharge without conviction, and sentencing if required.

She said: “If there are problems with the MPI website with people trying to obtain this information, then something needs to be done.”

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