Murder hornets, little fire ants, yellowjackets, slugs, snakes — the list of potential pests arriving with the annual Christmas tree shipments is long.
Over the past decade there has been a concerted effort to eradicate any unwelcome guests arriving on the hundreds of container loads of Christmas trees that arrive in Hawaii ports for the holiday season.
These firs and pines are an annual reminder of the precarious ecological balance the islands require, one that can be tipped by a single unknown pest or pathogen. Each container of trees is inspected by Department of Agriculture staff, debris is sifted for invasives, and if anything is found, the trees go through a further sanitization process.
But Christmas trees are an exceptional case, as biosecurity continues to go underfunded and short-staffed in a legacy stemming back to the 2008 economic crisis.
This year there were just a few slugs and yellowjackets to arrive in Hawaii, according to Hawaii DOA Plan Industry Division Administrator Helmuth Rogg, who took up his role in September. It is a stark improvement from when he started work on the interstate project for Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, where he worked for 17 years.
“It was pretty shocking back then,” Rogg said of his first Hawaii port inspection 2012. “The needles were already running out of the containers.”
The volume of debris spilling from containers indicated no effort to eliminate pests before being shipped off, he said.
It was common that trees harvested in Oregon and Washington were cut and left on the ground overnight, attracting insects such as nocturnal slugs or yellowjackets. Slugs seek shelter at dawn and queen yellowjackets seek warmth and shelter in the colder months, so they would climb into these trees in the Pacific Northwest but end up in Hawaii.
The potential effects of such pests could be devastating, considering that the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization estimates pest impacts cost the state $83 million from 2011 to 2015.
Hawaii DOA’s protocols have meant each tree in the 165 containers to arrive this year has been shaken and doused in hot water to eliminate any chance of live pests arriving before being distributed to stores around Hawaii. Staff are also sent to Oregon — where a majority of the trees come from — to oversee the process.
“We’re talking about maybe 150,000 to 200,000 trees that are actually arriving in port,” said Rogg.
While most businesses were reluctant to share how many trees they have sold, some reported they were returning to pre-pandemic sales for fresh trees. Lowe’s was anticipating its second and final shipment this week, as was City Mill. In Wahiawa, Helemano Farms was almost sold out of its cypress trees.
Helemano sold 5,000 trees last year, though this year’s sales forecast was somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 trees, according to Helemano Farms owner Aaron O’Brien.
But Christmas trees are a small part of a far greater biosecurity issue.
Once trees are rid of arboreal hitchhikers, they pose no risk to Hawaii, according to Michael Melzer of the University of Hawaii’s Agrosecurity Laboratory. In some ways, they are like cut flowers.
“The good thing with Christmas trees is that they are terminal,” Melzer said.
Melzer says he is more concerned about the greater nursery industry, beyond Christmas trees, coming from the cooler Pacific Northwest.
“I think we’re in some cases less concerned about things coming from a colder climate than coming from places like Florida, California, Mexico or Oceania,” Melzer said. “There’s climate connectivity … things that do well.”
And given Hawaii’s national and international connections, it’s not uncommon to find something new in the islands — pest or pathogen.
A new species of insect unknown to Hawaii is found every month, according to DOA administrator Rogg.
Biosecurity controls are not unlike public health controls, according to Rogg. It requires steadfast prevention, monitoring, control and evaluation. But not all pests are going to be akin to the Covid-19 pandemic; they could be more like the flu or just benign.
If left alone, however, the state’s farms and economy could be devastated.
“From the million species of insects that we know, only 10% are considered a pest,” Rogg said. “Not every species that we find here will be the next coffee berry borer.”
Nonetheless, he said, “once it’s established, it’s really difficult to get rid of it.”
Owen Kaneshiro can attest to that, managing 10 brassica crops on 30 acres in Waianae.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Kaneshiro said. “Something can pop up anytime.”
But his mizuna is especially high stakes, as he attempts to have everything ready for harvest to provide one of the most important ingredients for ozoni, often called lucky soup, which is consumed around the New Year.
In 2019, Kaneshiro’s crop yield was reduced to somewhere between 20% to 30% of what it should have been.
“You’re shooting for a small window,” Kaneshiro said. So if one crop is lost to a disease, his entire business suffers and he still has to pay 15 employees and business costs.
Mizuna, like all greens, has a short shelf life once picked and persnickety market demands call for uniformity and broad leaves — something compromised by any number of diseases.
UH extension agent Josh Silva works closely with Kaneshiro, taking soil samples to assess at Melzer’s lab, and recommends a roster of pest and fungal controls to either eradicate or control whatever is affecting his crops.
Pathogens are like human viruses in that they adapt to things that hold them at bay, so Silva circulates management strategies.
He also wears plastic covers for his shoes, to avoid spreading disease farm-to-farm.
The economic downturn of 2008 saw funding and staff positions for biosecurity plummet, leading to the formulation of the Hawaii Interagency Biosecurity Plan 2017-2027.
There were quantifiable ramifications: coconut rhinoceros beetle, Asian horntail wasps and naio thrips had entered Hawaii. And, according to the biosecurity plan’s January progress report, funding cuts also led to the spread of rapid ohia death and little fire ants.
The 10-year plan set ambitious targets for biosecurity staffers at UH, DOA and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, including doubling the port inspection workforce to 182 workers from 91.
But there were fewer workers on the ground than the plan’s benchmark, according to Rogg. And only about 1% to 2% of all shipments coming into Hawaii’s ports were checked by DOA plant division staff.
Hawaii Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee Chair Mike Gabbard said the staffing issue was a concern, but overall funding has been an issue since 2007.
Biosecurity currently costs the state $57 million, 0.4% of the state budget, but to implement all 150 goals of the interagency plan — from hiring more staff at UH, DOA and DLNR to investing in technologies — that would need to increase of $37.8 million, another 0.3% of state coffers.
Achieving all 150 goals was aspirational, as it did not compromise the department’s core functions, according to Gabbard.
“I get nausea when I hear this: ‘We import 85 to 90% of our food, we spend $3 billion every year, we’ve got to do something about it,’” Gabbard said. “OK, well, let’s get real then. Let’s help the Department of Ag so they can accomplish what they want to do.”
Gabbard is eying a $20 visitor green fee, aimed at funding the work force, services and programs relating to the state’s environmental goals.
The bill failed in the 2021 session.
“The whole idea is that this would help fund programs like these … to keep paradise, paradise,” Gabbard said.
House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said she felt that biosecurity was a pressing issue, but one that did not just require money to hire more staff. There was an issue of staff retention, as one-third of DOA positions remain vacant, Luke said.
As the state enters economic recovery, natural resources would be a priority for the finance committee. It would be similar to the recovery effort that followed the 2008 downturn, which DOA has never fully recovered from, Luke said.
And while the next budget will be healthier, whether every department’s budget will be increased remains a question.
“We have to strategically figure out where can we increase more and where should we keep the status quo,” Luke said.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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