Isles fear gap in inspections
Guam project increases risk of invasive species
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The effort to keep out harmful invasive species is hamstrung by federal jurisdiction over incoming cargo, state agriculture officials charge as legislators weigh a potential remedy.
The introduction of two species alone -- the brown tree snake and the red fire ant -- could cost Hawaii more than $600 million a year and drastically alter local lifestyles, officials estimate.
Yet that risk will rise dramatically in the next two years with a planned military buildup on Guam, infested by the tree snake.
"Brown tree snakes are going to be in household goods, hiding in machinery," said Carol Okada, Plant Quarantine Branch manager at the state Department of Agriculture. "It's a whole new aspect that quarantine must do."
To bridge the gap between federal and state inspectors, state officials hope to create a four-level biosecurity program, which would minimize the invasive species risk, and a joint federal-state inspection facility at Honolulu Airport.
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State agriculture officials are warning that their hands are tied in the fight to block invasive species from entering Hawaii with a potential of more than $600 million in damage annually.
Officials add the forthcoming military buildup on Guam will only increase the threat of alien species entering Hawaii.
"Since 2000, if you're looking at the rash of invasive species coming in, a lot of it has to do with ... federal spending," said Carol Okada, Plant Quarantine Branch manager at the state Department of Agriculture. "What we're asking for is to put the net behind us, not in front of us, and to start protecting us."
The brown tree snake and the red imported fire ant are at the top of the list of unwanted invasive species, according to the Agriculture Department.
The tree snake, which has wiped out nine of 14 forest bird species in Guam, would cause at least $485 million in damage a year in Hawaii, attack native bird species and cause several power failures a week, officials estimate. The fire ant, an aggressive pest, has a sting that leaves a white pustule that can last for days. It could cause $200 million in damage a year, officials estimate.
Either species would significantly alter the quality of life in Hawaii, officials say.
The tree snake "is just not the kind of pest we want here," said Mindy Wilkinson, program manager of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council. "It's been so dramatic on Guam that it's very difficult to overstate how important it is that this not happen to Hawaii."
But agriculture officials are also worried about agricultural pests, plant viruses and disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes coming into Hawaii, Okada said.
Over the next six years, military officials plan to move about 40,000 military personnel and their families to Guam. Billions of dollars' worth of construction projects could begin as early as next year.
The military buildup would increase cargo transportation out of Guam by 600 times during the next two years, Okada said.
"We're in the crossroads of that," she said. "Brown tree snakes are going to be in household goods, hiding in machinery. It's a whole new aspect that quarantine must do."
Domingo Cravalho, inspection and compliance section chief for the state Agriculture Department, said pre-departure inspections in Guam by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services are critical to keeping the brown tree snake out of Hawaii.
"Inspection upon arrival here in Hawaii is too late," he said. "It's after the fact when the snake comes in."
But even under the USDA's program, inspections are only voluntary.
"There's no law that says any vessel or aircraft, whether military or private or commercial, leaving the area of Guam, due to brown tree snakes, has to be inspected," he said.
Along with the increased military movement, federal policies on inspecting foreign imports at Hawaii ports are worrying state officials.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency claims responsibility over the state for checking produce and cargo from foreign ports. But the agency withholds cargo information about the imported goods, which would have allowed state inspectors to check susceptible cargo, state officials claim.
"While information is sometimes shared, it is sporadic, leaving gaps in coverage," Okada said.
A customs official did not respond with a comment.
Okada said the lack of communication has resulted in a rash of invasive species entering Hawaii such as the varroa mite, which feeds on honeybees, the erythrina gall wasp, which has killed thousands of wiliwili trees in Hawaii, and the nettle caterpillar, which has a painful, Portuguese man-of-war-like sting.
Other communication barriers with the federal level could allow harmful species into Hawaii because they are harmless on the mainland.
"The problem is the federal list of bad bugs to look for ... don't match the state list," said Christy Martin, spokeswoman for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species. "In order to get onto the federal list, it has to pose a threat to the majority of the United States. A tropical bug that would affect Hawaii would have very little chance of making it onto the federal watch list."
To bridge the gap between federal and state inspectors, state officials are creating a four-level biosecurity program that would minimize the invasive species risk and a joint federal-state inspection facility at Honolulu Airport.
"If we can have a joint inspection facility, they don't have to tell us (about the cargo)," Okada said. "We'll see the cargo there."
The facility would house both federal and state inspections under one roof, enhancing communication and creating a one-stop shop for inspections, supporters say.
Currently, a bill is moving through the state Capitol to establish and fund the biosecurity program. Another legislative bill would provide $10 million to build a joint inspection facility at Honolulu Airport.
State agriculture officials are also working with sea carriers to designate cargo into high, moderate or low risks of carrying invasive species, allowing state inspectors to focus on the highest-risk cargo.