From seeds to snakes, alien stowaways are relentless.

The governor restores 10 agricultural inspectors, but some invasive threats on the horizon call for more than just eyes

Environment / Invasive species pose the single biggest threat to Hawaii’s general health, economy and natural environment, according to the National Wildlife Research Center. And the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) is our front line of defense against them.

The department took a big hit in 2009 under the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle, who, in an attempt to balance the budget and chip away at debt, cut about half of the state’s agricultural inspectors. Prior to Lingle’s cuts, there were 95 plant quarantine inspectors statewide; post-slashfest, there remained only 50. Recently though, Gov. Neil Abercrombie approved the hiring of 10 agricultural inspectors, restoring some of the postions eliminated in 2009.

“Reinstating our agricultural inspectors was a key element of the New Day Plan and its promise to protect the environment, grow more of our own food and restore a strong economy to Hawaii,” said the governor in a July 13, 2011, press release.

Considering the potential economical damages–not to mention the ecological ones–there should be more than enough of a reason to put HDOA’s funding into perspective and make it a priority.

Plant Quarantine Branch data shows the number of invasive species interceptions statewide dropped by about 50 percent in one year after the personnel cuts. In the same year, interceptions on Oahu specifically dropped by 762 percent (663 interceptions in 2009 versus 87 in 2010).

Recent pests making a home for themselves here include sweet potato weevils, naio thrips and the coffee berry borer. All of these invaders have the potential to negatively affect our agriculture, but there is another invasive threat that has the ability to affect much, much more.

Snakes on a Plane

The brown tree snake has already decimated native birds and ecosystems on Guam–which, like Hawaii, has no endemic snakes. The voracious slitherers arrived by mistake sometime after World War II, most likely on a US military cargo ship en route from New Guinea. Having no natural predators and an abundance of prey, the snakes flourished on Guam and have permanently altered its environment and ecology. Since they became established, brown tree snakes have wiped out 10 of Guam’s 13 native bird species and caused countless power outages. Guam Memorial Hospital also now treats about 170 snakebites a year.

According to a study published January 2010 in Pacific Science Journal, the probability of snakes coming to Hawaii, becoming established and causing real economic damage has been estimated to be…wait for it…100 percent. Even in spite of our current intensive cargo screening procedures, eight brown tree snakes have been found on Oahu since 1981. All of them are assumed to have been transported on commercial or military aircraft from Guam. Kind of makes you wonder what we’re missing, doesn’t it?

The risks continue to grow. In May 2006, the US and Japan signed an agreement to reduce the US military presence in Okinawa. This effort, known as the Defense Policy Review Initiative, will relocate some 8,600 Marines and 9,000 of their dependants to the island of Guam by 2014. Guam’s infrastructure, however, is not ready. Improvements required to accommodate the military will cause a massive movement of materials between Hawaii and Guam–more than ever before–expanding the risks to Hawaii’s ecosystem tenfold. The estimated annual damages of the brown tree snake establishing itself in Hawaii range from $593 million to $2.14 billion. We may need more than 10 additional pairs of eyes.

Island Hopping

Big Island residents are already bothered by the vocipherously-marauding coqui frog, whose population is reported to be denser there than in its native Puerto Rico. The little quarter-sized frogs are believed to have arrived in Hawaii in potted plant material from either the mainland or Puerto Rico around 1988. The male coqui frog emits a mating call (females are generally silent) that has been measured at 80-90 decibels, or about as loud as a lawnmower.

In just over 20 years after what was presumably an isolated infestation of a single site on Hawaii, the coqui has spread throughout Big Island and has also been found on Maui, Kauai and Oahu. And in February 2011, Hawaii News Now reported three coqui frogs found in three separate areas on Oahu.

Coqui frogs have no natural predators on O’ahu, which gives them the ability to multiply quickly and eat huge quantities of insects, resulting in a loss of insect pollination services. This also disrupts our natural ecosystem, putting birds in direct competition with coquis for food. Another future risk assessment paints coquis as food for the yet-to-arrive brown tree snake.

Send in the Dogs

“The more eyes you have looking, the more invasive species you’re going to find and prevent from entering our environment,” said Carol Okada, manager of the HDOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch, in the governor’s press release. That is obvious logic. Perhaps, though, even more effective than more eyes would be a few well-trained sniffers.

Along with half of the HDOA’s human inspectors, the state’s canine inspector team was laid off in 2009. At one point, the HDOA’s Detector Dog Program had 10 dogs–nine beagles and one German shorthair pointer. HDOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch (according to the office of the governor) would also like to re-establish the Detector Dog Program, which has shown to be one of–if not the most–effective ways to intercept brown tree snakes. But according to the HDOA themselves, even though the 10 newly rehired inspectors are not enough, there are no plans in action to bring back the Detector Dog Program.

“We need 15 more (inspectors) back,” says Plant Quarantine Inspector Keevin Minami. “Until we get that back, we couldn’t even start to do it; although we want to.”

The Detector Dog Program was in effect as early as 1989, but once the funding was cut in 2009, all the dogs were placed in foster homes. Even the training of these dogs is lengthy and expensive, which itself implies that they are state assets more or less wastefully discarded. With the risk of a snake invasion on Oahu as high as it is, why was the program cut in the first place?

The brown tree snake is not the only invasive threat to Hawaii, and, in reality, the beagles are not likely bummed about being on the unemployed list. But thanks to the Pest Inspection, Quarantine and Eradication Special Fund–an HDOA fund covering all the current reinstatements–everything is being paid for by the inspectees. The fund collects inspection fees, service fees, charges, penalties, federal funds, grants and gifts and can be used for just about anything the department sees fit.

Hawaii Department of Agriculture–now I’m talking to you–please bring back the dogs before these Islands go to the snakes.

The HDOA plays a key role in Hawaii’s future. They have the ability to keep our delicate island ecosystem safe; but do they have the manpower? With so much recent emphasis on local agriculture, their part to play has never been more important.

We can help, too. Report suspicious species to HDOA’s hotline: 808-643-PEST.