Cover Story


Snakes on a plane

Frogs in your plants. Invasive species will find a way. But while Hawai'i bungles the job, New Zealand gets serious.

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Cover image for Aug 23, 2006

Hawai’i’s airports and harbors are ticking time bombs–and we’re not talking about the kind that do predictable stuff, like blow up, maim, destroy.

No, this catastrophe in the making is not so simple as that. For one thing, the threats are multi-faceted, and guaranteed to strike without warning, singly or en masse. The lethal agents are tiny–easily disguised and transported, but not so easily detected, hiding in seemingly innocuous places: the standing water on container ships and bilges of luxury liners; the potted plants and bareroot trees of the nursery trade; the landing gear of military planes and cabins of passenger jets; the pallets and parcels bearing everything from everyplace to this remotest spot on Earth.

Like the terrorists our government is constantly warning us about, and fighting in all manner of grisly, desperate ways, they lurk, waiting to invade, with dire consequences and no forewarning. It is these weird viruses, malarial mosquitoes, biting flies, fire ants, poisonous weeds, snakes, funguses, rusts, scales and molds that could quickly plunge this paradise of the Pacific into a living hell.

Welcome to the brave new world of biosecurity. It looks beyond the homeland to the far more critical biosphere, which does, after all, provide the services needed to support life on the planet.

Paula Warren is an expert on the subject, and when she’s not at her home in Wellington, on the South Island of New Zealand, she’s traveling the world advising countries on how they can do biosecurity better. She recently spent two weeks in Hawai’i, at the invitation of the Hawaii Conservation Alliance and met the folks charged with keeping the bio-baddies at bay.

‘The advantage of being an outsider is I can say things perhaps they would be reluctant to say,’ said Warren, principal policy analyst for New Zealand’s Dept. of Conservation, the central government agency responsible for protected areas and species. ‘But doing something about it, that has to come from inside. I struggle to understand American politics and bureaucracy.’

Although Warren is aware of the differences between the New Zealand biosecurity system, which is close to the ideal, and the American system, which is not, there’s no trace of smugness in her observations, which she offered in the cheerful, polite, understated Kiwi way.

‘There is room for improvement,’ she began.

How much room?

‘A lot of the elements of a good biosecurity system are here, but they’re fragmented across lots of different agencies.’

Well, Hawai’i catches about 1 percent of the stuff it’s trying to keep out. New Zealand, on the other hand, nails 95 percent. Even Chile and the Galapagos Islands are more vigilant than the Aloha State.

‘A lot of the elements of a good biosecurity system are here, but they’re fragmented across lots of different agencies,’ Warren explained. ‘Whether it’s fixable or not is another question. But I’m certainly not getting the sense that it’s hopeless.’

The problem isn’t lazy or uncaring workers. ‘What I’m finding among the people who work on this is a high desire to cooperate more effectively and a willingness to find ways to work outside their existing mandate,’ Warren said. ‘Within each agency, I found lots of enthusiastic people basically making the best of a bad situation, dealing with a lack of resources, legal authority, technology.’

Nor is it insufficient funding. ‘Overall, Hawai’i is probably spending enough on biosecurity,’ she said. ‘But it’s not being spent in the right places. It’s just being spent reactively.’

Paula Warren

For instance, $50 million is spent each year on termite damage and control. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if that money was used on prevention or eradication?’ she asked. ‘Instead, it’s used on suffering the consequences.’

Warren also noticed a lot of no-brainer prevention measures are missing in the Islands, although she is far too professional to use such a term. Instead, she provided a compelling example: Because New Zealand wants to keep out malaria, which is carried by mosquitoes, ‘You can’t bring in wet things, like tires, and standing water can’t enter.’ Hawai’i, on the other hand, has no such rules.

Nor can you deliberately import anything into New Zealand that will displace native species. That’s a concept that has yet to take hold in Hawai’i, where many conservationists consider invasive species the number one environmental threat, contributing to the state’s dubious distinction as the world’s endangered species capitol. Apparently the Southern Hemisphere has affected the Kiwis’ way of doing things, which seems the exact opposite of the Northern Hemisphere American approach.

In New Zealand, conservation groups ‘are essentially piggybacking’ on strict environmental protection efforts driven by business, tourism and agricultural interests, as well as the health ministry, because they recognize that alien pests and diseases are a drain on the nation’s economy. ‘In the end, it’s the economic groups in New Zealand that have created the biosecurity system,’ she said.

By comparison–and these are not Warren’s observations–U.S. environmental policy is largely determined by special interest groups, enforced through lawsuits brought by conservationists, then undermined by anti-green political appointees in regulatory agencies.

‘Litigation is not a big part of the New Zealand mentality,’ Warren said. ‘What the public does is encourage the agencies to do something, pressure them to take steps to change or review the system. There’s very strong scrutiny of what the agencies are doing.’

The military, too, plays a very different role in New Zealand, where it assists with marine mammal surveys, fisheries enforcement and invasive weed control, rather than seeking exemptions to national environmental laws, as the U.S. military is wont to do.

‘That does seem to be an issue here,’ Warren observed. ‘Pearl Harbor is the dirtiest piece of water in the state when it comes to invasive species.’ New Zealand’s armed forces, on the other hand, are required to abide by all environmental laws.

‘The military can be a positive as well as a negative,’ she noted. ‘It’s a matter of accepting that biosecurity is as large an issue to public safety as terrorism, and I don’t think your government understands that.’

‘Overall, Hawai’i is probably spending enough on biosecurity. But it’s not being spent in the
right places. It’s just being spent reactively.’

Personally, Warren doesn’t see much difference in dying from a suicide bomb blast or malarial mosquito bite. ‘In the end, if you’re dead, you’re dead.’

Warren was surprised to discover in Hawai’i ‘there’s no way to stop the military from transporting things across the state because they are bound by federal, not state, laws.’

Those turf battles aren’t waged in New Zealand, which has a central system of government. Its Biosecurity Ministry oversees everything related to health, conservation, agriculture and biological resources, Warren explained. ‘And then there are a number of coordinating mechanisms to make sure they’re acting on behalf of everyone.’

Salvinia molesta once filled Lake Wilson. In 2003, it took the state a month to remove the invasive plant from the body of water.

The next layer of authority lies at the regional level, which deals with localized pests, individual landowners and private farms. ‘Under our system, it’s quite clear to see who is accountable for what,’ she said.

Standing in stark contrast is Hawai’i’s system, which Warren characterized as ‘fragmented and poorly coordinated.’ She added, ‘Frequently, agencies aren’t able to easily get together and decide how to handle pests.’

In New Zealand, the course of action is clear. ‘We get something in, we eradicate it. If eradication is not feasible, we try to contain, then control it, to protect other parts of the system. ‘

And New Zealand workers have the authority to carry out their plan of attack, she said. They can confiscate goods, force persons to assist their efforts, prevent vehicle movement and go on private land to deal with a biosecurity threat.

‘We have our own frustrations, but the sense we’re moving forward is much stronger,’ Warren observed. ‘In New Zealand, the momentum is within the system. In Hawai’i, it’s mostly built by individuals working against the system to get around the problems. So you lose it if that person changes jobs, or retires.’

That’s a concern to Warren, who said, ‘A lot of the people I’ve been talking to in Hawai’i are not that young. It’s time to be identifying and mentoring the future leaders. It’s a risk that new enthusiastic people will give up because they get sick of dealing with the bureaucracy. And you can’t really afford to have that happen when [you] have a system that’s very dependent on people, rather than processes.’

While in the Islands, Warren met with more than a dozen groups and agencies involved in conservation, inspection and quarantine work–the federal and state departments of agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Maui County environmental services office, The Nature Conservancy and Bishop Museum among them– and still barely scratched the surface.

‘There are so many issues that more people are getting involved, which in a way is good,’ Warren noted. ‘But the problem is, now there are more and more agencies working in this fragmented jigsaw model.

‘It’s a matter of accepting that biosecurity is as large an issue to public safety as terrorism,
and I don’t think your government understands that.’

‘There doesn’t seem to be the ability to look at the big picture and see what needs to be done,’ which is where Warren, with her expertise and outsider status, comes in.

So what is Warren’s prescription for bringing Hawai’i’s ailing biosecurity system into some semblance of good health?

‘I’m going to be making some recommendations on improvement, but at a fairly general level because I don’t understand the finer points of your system,’ she said. ‘And I also think there’s some very good things here that need to be cherished and expanded on.’

Coqui frog

Warren gave high marks to the state’s invasive species committee program, which has task forces on each island coordinating with various groups and agencies to prioritize and then eradicate targeted invasive species.

‘And everyone recognizes interisland quarantine is needed,’ she added.

That leads to another sticky issue, the so-called Superferry, which is expected to increase the movement of goods and vehicles between islands. The company’s plan for handling inspections has not been fully disclosed, and Warren said it appears there’s inadequate space for an inspection system at the crowded harbors where the ferries will dock.

She also noted that New Zealand still has not resolved all the inspection and quarantine issues associated with its own rail ferry system, which allows railroad cars, as well as people and motor vehicles, to pass freely between the North and South Islands.

Still, Warren pointed out, Maui has done a good job of keeping out pests at its expanded airport, even though many people were worried that direct overseas flights would bring more alien species to the island. ‘The example at Maui shows you can do something if you put your mind to it.’

Overall, Warren said, ‘the basic elements of the system are sitting there, waiting to be plugged in, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm among individuals. I truly think the system will improve because people want it to.

‘But there’s a real risk of lots of serious losses in the meantime,’ she warned. ‘Often it’s the major losses that make people say, ‘oh my God, we’ve got to do something.’ But by that time, unfortunately, it’s often too late.’