Alien species alarm re-sounded

More funding is needed to tackle the problem, officials tell a Senate panel
Honolulu Star Advertiser - January 9, 2014
Gary T. Kubota

Last year, a mosquito capable of spreading dengue fever began showing up at Honolulu Airport.

And on Dec. 23 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, state inspectors found coconut rhinoceros beetles, or Oryctes rhinoceros -- insects capable of destroying palm and coconut trees as well as sugarcane.

Hawaii is facing serious threats from new alien species, state Health Department officials warned lawmakers Wednesday, saying more financial support and coordinated focus is necessary to stem an invasion of harmful insects capable of causing billions in economic losses.

Acting Health Director Gary Gill said a state biologist noted the presence of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes near Honolulu Airport on several occasions last year. The mosquito is capable of spreading dengue fever.

"It's the worst possible place to have this mosquito," Gill told lawmakers at a hearing of the state Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment.

"We need to focus on points of entry. ... A million dollars is going to save billions of dollars in our economy. What would happen to the tourist economy if we had biting ants on our beaches, if we had dengue fever spreading far and wide? How many people would want to come here? It's a common-sense investment in our protection."

Preparing for next week's legislative session, the committee received an overview of efforts by various state departments and state-funded groups that fight invasive species.

The Health Department's acting Plant Quarantine Branch chief, Darcy Oishi, said an investigation is underway to determine how much the coconut rhinoceros beetle has spread on Oahu after the insect was discoveredlast month.

Officials are also trying to contain the spread of little fire ants, Wasmannia auropunctata, across the state. Most recently appearing on Oahu with its severe sting, the ant could generate $170 million in economic losses per year if it were to become established, a University of Hawaii study found.

"What we heard today reinforces our concerns about the devastating impact invasive species are having on our environment, our agriculture and our economy," said state Sen. Mike Gabbard. "It's a problem that seems to be getting worse."

After the hearing, Oishi said the state is trying to determine the amount of money needed to fight both the little fire ant and the coconut rhinoceros beetle.

Gill said 40 staff positions in the state Vector Control Section were cut during the economic downturn, and there are now only five employees on Oahu. Just one employee is assigned to the airport, where he said the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes may be coming from.

Gill said funding for eight positions in vector control was requested during the past legislative session and approval was given for four. He is again seeking funding to fill the other four positions this session.

Because of a lack of funding, there are no night shift agricultural inspectors at the airport, Gill said.

Christy Martin, speaking on behalf of the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, said adequate inspections are needed to protect Hawaii.

There needs to be a way of inspecting the mail to prevent smuggling of alien species, including seeds of banned plants, and also an overhaul of the state certification program for nurseries to prevent the spread of invasive species like the coqui frogs, or Eleutherodactylus coqui, Martin said.

State officials continue to seek funding for Gov. Neil Abercrombie's initiative to increase the amount of watershed acreage across the state, partly by fencing off areas to prevent pigs, goats and deer from entering native forest areas.

Senate and House Democrats are supporting a bill to give $5 million in fiscal 2014-15 to the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, which issues grant money to various priority projects aimed at fighting biological threats. The council received $750,000 in general funds in fiscal 2013-2014.

Part of the problem facing Hawaii stems from the federal system of screening, some say. Little fire ants, already present in California and Florida, are not on the list of banned federal insects even though their environmental impact can be devastating, Oishi said.