Saturday, April 24, 2004

Banana virus too
widespread on Big Isle

HILO » A banana virus discovered on the Big Island's eastern coast, the heart of Hawaii's $8.4 million banana industry, has spread too far to be eradicated, state officials said.

The banana bunchy-top virus, which deforms fruit and eventually ends new growth, was found on a Keaau banana farm and reported to the state last week.

But it may have been too late. Surveys indicate the virus might have infected plants at the Keaau Banana Plantation for a year or more, said Larry Nakahara, head of the Department of Agriculture's Plant Pest Control Branch.

"From what we've seen, it's beyond eradication," Nakahara said. "We're in a management mode now."

Agriculture personnel brought in from other islands to do an intensive survey of the Keaau area have found banana bunchy-top three miles away from Keaau Banana Plantation, around homes and at Kipuka Farms on the Keaau-Pahoa Road.

"It's a very devastating disease," said Scot Nelson, a researcher with the University of Hawaii's Cooperative Extension Service. "It's a major threat to our banana industry."

Agriculture officials are worried that someone might try to haul a diseased plant to the landfill or other area, leaving a trail of banana aphids, which carry and spread the virus.

Agriculture officials are interested in learning of any banana plants that might have been moved out of the Keaau area to help them track the disease's possible spread.

"Vigilance is going to help prevent the spread to the neighbor's place," Nelson said.

The aphids can be controlled by commercially available insecticide soaps, but banana plants must be thoroughly soaked to reach under leaf sheaths where aphid colonies are usually found.

Early symptoms of banana bunchy-top include streaking on the veins of leaves and on the leaf stem.

The virus causes new leaves on mature plants to become narrower and also causes the leaves to become "bunched" at the top.

Severely infected plants usually will not produce fruit, but while any bananas produced will likely be deformed, they are safe to eat.

Banana bunchy-top virus has also been found on Oahu, on Kauai from Hanalei to Lawai, and on Maui in Pukalani and Makawao.

Banana bunchy-top has also spread too far to be eradicated on Oahu, where it was first detected in 1989, and on Kauai, where it first showed up in 1997. The virus was found in Pukalani, Maui, in January 2003.

Workers at the infected plantations in Puna are carrying out an intense spraying program for the aphids.

That, combined with plantings of disease-free plants and "constant surveillance," is what is being done on Oahu, officials said.

The virus also turned up in 1995 in Kona, killing 175,000 banana trees in a 10-square-mile area around Kailua. Infestations have been observed there as recently as two months ago.


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