State lawmakers are asked to find a little more funding now to save a lot more money later in order to protect the islands’ fragile ecosystems and ag lands.

For every dollar spent on biosecurity, the state is potentially saving $8,000 on the economic impacts that invasive species and diseases can bring.

That’s the message state biosecurity experts had for Senate and House lawmakers at an informational briefing Thursday in which they forecast over $3 billion in costs associated with just four invasive species running rampant.

The estimated prevention costs for the brown tree snake, miconia, little fire ant and red imported fire ant, along with the rest of the plan, totaled $38 million.

“It’s time to get serious,” House Energy and Environment Committee Chair Nicole Lowen said about investing in more biosecurity measures.

Invasive species such as deer are plaguing Hawaii’s environment and agriculture, not only compromising the environment but also paving the way for more invasives. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

The state has been moving through the policy objectives laid out in the Hawaii Interagency Biosecurity Plan for 2017 to 2027, led by the departments of Agriculture and Land and Natural Resources.

But the plan’s implementation is plateauing after having achieved 68% of its 147 goals, up just 3% from this time in 2022.

The most straightforward, least expensive work has been done already, as staff were forced into frugality by the pandemic and funding cuts, according to Christy Martin, program director for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species.

“Now that leaves us with the heavy lifts,” she said in an interview.

The bottom line: There is not enough staff to properly contain the litany of invasive species in Hawaii, let alone keep everything out. And the longer the problems are left alone, the more they will cost to address.

Hawaii has long list of animals, insects and diseases devastating crops, reducing the state’s environmental security and destroying its already winnowing defenses against climate change.

Martin said it is difficult to nail down how much the agencies involved are receiving — DLNR and DOA typically receive less than 2% of the state operating budget combined — but the lack of money for staff points to the state needing to “double down.”

Take the University of Hawaii: It lost 70 positions over the course of the pandemic within the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Many of those roles — research among them — inform strategies to increase biosecurity. It has since recovered 21 positions.

Then there is DOA, which runs biosecurity programs at Hawaii’s ports, among other programs, predominantly aimed at protecting agriculture.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

“The Department of Agriculture used to have 10 people working on one particular issue. Now they have one person working on 10 issues,” Martin says. “It’s absolutely an indicator of a lack of funding.”

Then, there are many more gaps, such as inspecting agricultural products for pests; mitigating risks associated with ballast water from ships; and facilities, such as laboratories, for testing and inspections.

“A lot has happened in the past six years and the importance of the plan has fallen off a lot of our radars,” Hawaii Invasive Species Council program supervisor Chelsea Arnott said, underscoring the need for decision-makers to rally around the cause. “We need to continue to recognize what we have accomplished so we’re motivated to take on our challenges and forge ahead.”

‘We’ve Lost That Fight’

The interagency plan resulted from an influx of invasive species in Hawaii after biosecurity funding and staffing were slashed following the 2008 economic downturn.

Coconut rhinoceros beetle was one new species, found in 2013, a large insect that can decimate coconut trees, banana, pineapple and sugarcane. In Palau, where it was introduced in 1942, it cut the coconut palm population in half.

Coconut rhinoceros beetle traps can be found all around Oahu, though now eradication is impossible, biosecurity workers are aiming to contain them. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Hawaii DOA Plant Division told lawmakers the beetle was here to stay.

“Basically we’ve lost that fight, our ability to eradicate the species,” acting manager Darcy Oishi said at the briefing Thursday.

The beetle’s proliferation is emblematic of the importance of investing in both rapid response and prevention as the state continues to deal with other invasive species, such as the little red ant which attracts other pests.

Dealing with the little fire ant, even eradicating it, again comes down to resources.

“If we had the resources and manpower to do it long term, it’s possible,” Hawaii Ant Lab‘s Michelle Montgomery told lawmakers.

Forecasting The Future

Keeping things out of Hawaii is more complicated than shutting the borders or watching for certain pests and diseases thanks to climate change.

Oishi points to the two-line spittle bug, which has afflicted farmers in recent years and was not even on the department’s radar until it was causing problems. Same story with the Queensland longhorn beetle.

“It would not have appeared on any of our assessments, because it’s not even known what it really does in its native environment,” Oishi said.

Leaf Rust Coffee Big Island Hawaii Grown
Coffee leaf rust has decimated crops, which is among the most valuable crops in Hawaii’s agriculture industry. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022)

Climate change is anticipated to increase the amount of “novel” invasive species — species previously unknown as pests — significantly in the future, as human and climactic factors merge. It is estimated that up to 16% of all species on earth could potentially become invasive.

One 2018 study found that 25% of newly introduced invasive species first recorded between 2000 and 2005 had not been previously deemed invasive.

Can’t Please Everyone

Lowen, the state lawmaker who was at the briefing, said she understands more funding is needed for biosecurity programs to achieve the interagency plan’s goals. She said it’s not just the money though, it’s about making tough choices and having difficult conversations about how the system functions.

“Part of the challenge is that our politicians always seem to be trying to please everyone,” Lowen said in an interview.

Rep Nicole Lowen in joint senate/house finance final budget announcement.
House Energy and Environment Committee Chair Nicole Lowen of Hawaii island says the state needs to get serious about funding biosecurity. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

One example is analyzing the cost-benefit of keeping invasive species such as deer and pigs in Hawaii for food, compared to their detrimental environmental effects.

“Eradication” has become a dirty word among people across Hawaii who see invasive mammals such as deer, goats and wild pigs as a key source of food, Lowen said, but building fences to keep them out and maintaining them is not cheap either.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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