Inspector cuts endanger Hawaii farms, environment

HONOLULU (AP) — Cuts in the number of inspectors who check cargo and passengers entering Hawaii have some worried that more pests will get established in a state that is especially vulnerable because of its tropical weather and few natural predators.

Hawaii has a history of non-native animals and bugs that established a foothold and then spread like wildfire, from the mongoose, a weasel-like animal native to India, that has helped drive native birds to the brink of extinction, to a beetle from Central Africa that is destroying prized Kona coffee crops.

In the past few years, Hawaii has made big cuts to its team of inspectors who check shipping containers and keep an eye on tourists' luggage. The number of inspectors fell from 95 people in 2009 to 50 last year. Since then, a few additional positions have been filled, but there hasn't been enough money to come close to previous staffing levels.

Such inspections are vital in Hawaii because once creatures get established in the state, they thrive in the subtropical warmth and can cause extensive damage to farms and the environment. Often, they have little to fear from species native to Hawaii that evolved in isolation and lack natural defenses against their alien counterparts.

"It's paradise. Pests love it. Everybody does well here," said Christy Martin, a spokeswoman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pests Species, made up of government and private organizations.

State Rep. Clift Tsuji has been leading efforts in the Legislature to boost funding for the state Department of Agriculture's inspector program, arguing that "reducing inspectors make us more vulnerable."

Already, it appears the decline in inspectors has resulted in fewer pests being found at airports and harbors.

State Department of Agriculture data shows 663 pests were intercepted on Oahu between July and December of 2009 — before the cuts. During the same six months of 2010, only 87 pests were found.

The inspectors focus primarily on cargo because there's a greater risk an invasive species will be hiding in a shipment of goods than in a traveler's suitcase.

Officials said the drop in inspections could be troublesome for farmers, forests and even human health.

Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, said farmers will have to spend more money on research to fight new pests, and then on spraying or other methods to combat them.

Maui is known for its sweet onions, but farmers there also grow zucchini, tomatoes, cabbage and other crops. Pests could even affect cattle farmers at a time when Maui ranchers are already fighting fireweed, a herb that's toxic to livestock.

"Anything that will add to the cost of production is a very big concern because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage," Watanabe said.

In Kona, on the Big Island, coffee farmers have had to spend hundreds of dollars per acre to fight the coffee berry borer.

And officials in Hawaii are particularly worried about the brown tree snake — a reptile native to Australia and the Solomon Islands that has eaten to extinction 9 out of 11 species of forest birds on Guam since it was accidentally introduced there after World War II.

Another worry is that a plant pathogen native to Brazil may find its way into Hawaii in cut flower bouquets. The pathogen, called eucalyptus rust or guava rust, has shown up in Florida and California. It's a threat to ohia, a native tree that forms the foundation of Hawaii's forests.

Officials also are worried that mosquitoes that could carry malaria, dengue fever and other diseases could hop from one Hawaiian island to another or hitch a ride to the state from Asia or other parts of the world.

Some of these worries were realized in March when Department of Health workers found yellow fever mosquitoes — Aedes aegypti — in mosquito traps at Honolulu International Airport. The species, which is capable of rapidly spreading dengue and yellow fever, is only found on the Big Island and Molokai and hasn't been seen on Oahu since 1949.

Carol Okada, an Agriculture Department plant quarantine manager who heads the state's efforts to control invasive species, said there aren't enough inspectors to check for each species that authorities worry about.

"Do you look at florist boxes and forget the mosquito? And yet that's where we are at this point," she said. "Because you can't do it all. You have to choose."

Okada warns people would need to sleep with mosquito nets if a disease-carrying mosquito were to become established in Hawaii. Visitors would have to take shots or pills before coming to Hawaii, and some people could die of malaria, she said.

"For us, it's not reasonable for us to be threatened with something like that happening to Hawaii," Okada said.

The state Legislature is considering a proposal to give Okada's department $1.8 million in the upcoming budget so it can hire more inspectors. The number of inspectors wouldn't reach previous levels, but it would raise the number to 82 and cover nine Maui inspector salaries now financed temporarily with federal money.

She hopes political and public support could ultimately bring that number back to 95 inspectors, enabling the state to check cargo and baggage at all hours of the day and night. Until then, she said her agency will have to scramble.

"It's hard to manage — it's like always juggling 'what's going to be important today? And what do we give up today for that?'" she said.

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