Friday, January 15, 1999

Virus forces officials
in Kona to kill 10 square
miles of banana plants

By Rod Thompson


KAILUA-KONA - State officials are planning a yearlong effort to kill every banana plant in a 10-square-mile area of North Kona in order to eradicate banana bunchy top virus.

Without the effort, the virus could spread to the Hilo area, where it might wipe out half of the state's $7 million banana production, officials say.

An announcement was to be made in Kona this morning to explain the program.

"We need the support of the community to make this work," said state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Ann Takiguchi.

The virus, which damaged Oahu's banana industry starting in 1989, was discovered in Kona in 1995.

It lives in banana plants, and is transferred from plant to plant by aphids.

Since it was found in Kona, officials have had limited success in controlling it by killing diseased plants and all other banana plants within 40 meters, said Larry Nakahara, head of the state Plant Pest Control Branch.

A quarantine banning removal of banana plants from the area has also been in effect.

The new, stepped-up program will be in effect from areas near Keahole Airport and mauka from there, stretching south through Kailua-Kona to Keauhou Bay and nearby mauka areas, said Lyle Wong, state Plant Industry Administrator.

A similar but much smaller one-square-mile eradication was successful last year at Kilauea, Kauai, Wong said.

The program will involve officials punching a hole in banana plants with a screwdriver, and squirting in about a fifth of a teaspoon of the herbicide Roundup, he said.

If people don't allow officials onto their property, it is possible to and is transferred from plant to plant by aphids. get a court order requiring it, he said.

But people in Kona have been very cooperative, Nakahara said.

"They know if they don't take out their (sick) plants, there are not going to be any bananas," Wong said.

Bananas are generally a tertiary crop in Kona, Takiguchi said.

The biggest problem is the numbers -- 5,000 backyard and small commercial growers in the area, Nakahara said.

Once plants are eradicated in six to nine months, an additional three months will be allowed to pass before replanting, a time period equivalent to three generations of aphids, he said.

The bright side of the picture is that local banana production is about saturating the state market, but federal officials recently issued new rules permitting export of green bananas to the mainland, Wong said.

Hilo area grower Richard Ha said officials hope to give one banana tree to every owner whose plants are cut.

"You plant one and pretty soon you have a thousand," he said.

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