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Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Star-Bulletin file photo
Bunchy top virus is spread by an aphid that has a life
span of two to four weeks. As evidenced above,
much damage can be done.

State prepares to
destroy much of
Kauai banana crop

The bunchy top virus is caused
by a killer aphid and the plants
must be destroyed by herbicide
or allowed to die of the disease

By Anthony Sommer
Kauai correspondent


KAPAA, Kauai -- The State Agriculture Department has plotted an 8-square-mile area where infestation of banana plants by the banana bunchy top virus will require the destruction of every plant.

Already earmarked for lethal injection of herbicide is more than 60 percent of Kauai's commercial banana crop. There also are about 2,500 homes in the area, many with bananas planted in the yards. State officials also have mapped out a much larger quarantine area stretching from Wailua to Kealia and from the ocean to the mountains.

Removal of any banana plants from that area will be prohibited and violators may be fined.

Commercial growers and state officials have asked banana plant owners in the area to leave their plants in place for now. If they rip them out and try taking them to the landfill they risk spreading the disease to the rest of the island.

Use of chemicals to kill the banana plants -- and the disease -- has been controversial in other areas and is expected to be so around Kapaa.

Kauai's two largest banana farmers said the state has given them the choice of letting their plants die of the disease or using Roundup herbicide. They've decided on the herbicide because it will eradicate the virus.

"Unless the chemicals are used, the plants will never completely die. The virus will remain in the roots and it will be impossible to ever grow bananas in that area again," said Godwin Esaki, who operates Kauai's largest banana farm. His father started the banana crop in 1960.

Esaki said he is not sure whether he will replant bananas or switch to another crop. In each of the eight years since Hurricane Iniki, his banana farm has only broken even and this year, for the first time, it looked like it would turn a profit.

"When a person chooses to farm he's got to expect the best and the worst," he said. Esaki said he has spent most of his life studying bananas and can't imagine growing anything else.

Jerry Ornellas, with partner Kelly Goodwin, has the second-largest banana farm on Kauai and is president of the Hawaii Banana Industry Growers Association. He has given the state the go-ahead to use chemicals but he, too, hasn't decided whether to replant bananas on the same ground.

"It might be better to get some land outside the infected area," he said.

Kauai provides 500,000 pounds of the 21 million pounds of bananas grown in Hawaii every year. In 1998, the Kauai banana crop was valued at $212,000.

The Kauai outbreak of banana bunchy top virus was reported by state officials on April 21. It had been discovered by Ornellas a few days earlier.

The virus is spread from plant to plant by an aphid that travels only a short distance in its life span of two to four weeks. The disease generally is transmitted to healthy plants when an infected plant is placed next to it and the aphids migrate or are blown from plant to plant.

The disease stunts the growth of new leaves, giving the plants a distinctive bunchy top. The fruit is safe for people to eat but the plant eventually dies.

Commercial growers have no insurance. Crop insurance generally is unavailable for tropical plants.

"The commercial growers will have a new crop in about 10 months after the eradication because they use more fertilizer. New residential plants will not yield bananas for a year to a year and a half," said Nilton Matayoshi of the Agriculture Department's Plant Pest Control Division.

Matayoshi added, however, that no start date or timetable for the eradication campaign has been set.

Bill Spitz, Kauai County's agricultural economics expert, said a new banana crop may be much longer in developing because commercial growers will wait until the disease is completely wiped out before bringing in new plants. Ornellas agreed, saying the commercial growers will be the last to replant.

"This is 8-square miles," Spitz noted. "In Kona, they've been trying to eradicate the disease in a 10-acre area and they've been at it for more than a year."

Two years ago, bunchy top virus appeared in a 1-square-mile around Kilauea on Kauai's north shore. The plants there all were killed with herbicide, although state officials had to go to court against several organic growers who refused to allow the chemicals on their property.

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