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Phil Karaitiana Honoured With Top Biosecurity Award

Council staff member Phil Karaitiana was named the winner of the New Zealand Biosecurity Award announced by Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor at an awards ceremony in Auckland last night.

Arriving home this morning Phil said it was humbling to receive the award and great to be in the company of biosecurity gurus from around the country.

The Ministerial award recognises the contribution to biosecurity over many years.

Phil’s interest in pest control started in 1969 when horses and dogs were used to catch one thing only - rabbits. More than 50 years later Phil has embraced the latest advances in technology to incorporate artificial intelligence and drones for pest management of hundreds of species on land and in our waters.

Phil is Gisborne District Council’s biosecurity team leader and arguably the longest-serving employee of biosecurity in New Zealand.

Asked what a career highlight had been, Phil said it was his humble beginnings.

“When I started out it was the 1970s and I learnt from the older generation. That was a solid foundation to build from. It helped with challenges and being adaptable.

“I was born and bred in Gisborne and my family upbringing was to respect your elders and learn from our kaumātua. This helped with my mahi. It means I’ve been able to stay agile and open-minded about how to manage pests in today’s environment.”

Phil said continued support from Council had kept him motivated to do the mahi.

“From our managers, directors, councillors, and the great team of guys I work with day-to-day.

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“Without them all I’m just another cog in the wheel.

“It’s all about our community, our people, our hapū, our iwi.”

Minister O’Connor said Phil had dedicated his career to protecting Wairoa and Gisborne from pests and diseases.

“From jumping on a horse and chasing rabbits in the early days to using drones and artificial intelligence now, Phil has been unwavering in his commitment to his region. He’s also a highly respected mentor and educator.”

Phil, 69, attended last night’s awards with his wife Tina, and some of their whanau.

Phil’s Director Michele Frey and Manager Kerry Hudson nominated him for the award.

Mr Hudson said Phil was a natural communicator with people and landowners, didn’t leave anything to chance and wasn’t “scared of the crunchy stuff”.

“Phil’s always a step ahead with a particular knack for interviews to ensure there’s a stable workforce ahead for biosecurity.

“Staff are exposed to firearms, poisons, hazardous chemicals, motorbikes and vehicle use in difficult and night-time conditions. There is also a reliance on working unsupervised.

“Phil gets it right every time.”

During lockdown Phil stepped up to lead his team through. He made sure those who had to work on established projects could do so in isolation.

He’s one of only two employees to ever fill the role of Council’s biosecurity team leader since local government amalgamation in 1989.

He’s also a whanau man who’s been married to Tina for 47 years and loves rugby. The couple has two children, five mokopuna and recently their first tuarua.

Phil left Gisborne Boys High School when he was 16 to work with the East Coast Pest Destruction Board. He started in rabbit control in Wairoa.

Phil’s working week involved camping with a mate, cooking on a pot belly fire in the caravan and leading a nomadic life from farm-to-farm intent on the eradication of rabbits.

Later the focus shifted to possums, which came with motorbikes and spotlights for possum control at night.

Local government amalgamation saw Phil become an employee of Gisborne District Council.

The amalgamation saw a reduction in land area and an associated reduction in resources.

Despite the challenges Phil always ran a tight and happy ship, said Mr Hudson.

Possums stayed a focus and then the control of animal and plant pests came under biosecurity as well.

Phil then took on the Council’s Team Leader role and had remained there ever since.

The advent of the Biosecurity Act 1993 saw Phil show agility to provide technical advice on both animal and plant pests.

With staff and financial resources always an issue, Phil along with his team, have prioritised workloads keeping the pressure on key plant and animal pests.

Challenges over his time include; Bovine TB, with a buffer zone established along our southern boundary with neighbour Hawke’s Bay. Didymo, a freshwater plant pest which has never reached the Gisborne District, and Fan Worm -- a marine pest that went from 60 being found in 2020, to only one found this year.

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