The department said it is taking an ‘all-hands-on-deck approach’ to the issue.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole is demanding urgent action by state officials, citing “grave concerns” about fast-spreading pest infestations that are jeopardizing Hawaii’s environment and agricultural production.

In a letter to Sharon Hurd, director of the state’s Agriculture Department, Keohokalole pelted officials with questions about what they are doing to contain widespread outbreaks of three simultaneous threats on Oahu and elsewhere.

They include the spread of infestations of little fire ants, which attack human and animal flesh, the proliferation of coconut rhinoceros beetles, which devour and destroy palm trees, and an exponential increase in noisy coqui frogs, whose voracious feeding habits are destabilizing entire ecosystems and permitting the rapid growth of other invasive species.

Chris Frohlich of the Hawaiian Ant Lab places traps along a Lanikai street to detect the presence of little fire ants. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“The gravity of these situations necessitates immediate and transparent action to protect our environment and communities,” Keohokalole said in the letter, pledging to do all he can to “mobilize” communities to seek means to eradicate the deadly pests.

Keohokalole, who represents Kaneohe and Kailua on Oahu, said he has been told there are at least 30 active little fire ant infestations on Oahu, at least 10,000 coqui frogs in Waimanalo, and that coconut rhinoceros beetles have spread from Oahu to Kauai.

He also asked Hurd to explain the department’s plans to eradicate pest infestations and why the department allowed its coconut rhinoceros beetle program to lapse in June.

Hurd, who was confirmed in her post in March, said Tuesday she is drafting a response to Keohokalole’s letter, where she intends to convey that the department is taking an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to handling the problem and will be working to collaborate with all relevant departments and outside agencies to move ahead.

“This is something that is not new,” Hurd said. “We have been watching for a while, but there’s clearly a lot of outreach we need to do … We are working on it.”

In an interview, Keohokalole suggested that state officials had hidden the extent of the problem from legislators during the recent legislative session.

There are at least 30 active Little Fire Ant infestations on Oahu as of June 2023. (Provided: OISC)

“It seems the situation is much worse than we were led to believe during the session,” the senator said, calling the situation a “crisis” that had gone unacknowledged.

If state officials had alerted lawmakers to the extent of the problems, they could have helped develop a more effective eradication plan, he said.

“I’m upset because we didn’t hear about it during the session when we could have funded it,” he said.

Keohokalole, who serves as Senate assistant majority whip and chairs the chamber’s Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, said he has been told that some plant nurseries may be exacerbating the problem by transporting ornamental plants infested with pests, including little fire ants, to other locations on the island.

Hurd said the department is monitoring little fire ant infestations, including at one nursery in Waimanalo, and is taking remediation steps there. She said one coqui frog “hot spot” has already been sprayed by helicopter, and active remediation is underway there and in Palolo.

She said new cross-agency teams are being mobilized to combat coconut rhinoceros beetle infestations. The program lapsed because a temporary regulatory rule expired, something they are trying to remedy.

Hurd agreed that funding is an issue. She said the Agriculture Department needs more money to buy the supplies needed for the eradication efforts because, “by statute, we need to do our work at no cost to the public,” but the remediation products are expensive and have risen in cost.

She said the agency had sought more funding but didn’t get it as “it was kind of chaotic at the end” of the legislative session.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

State biosecurity experts sought to highlight the issue at an informational briefing on the problem in January. Legislators appropriated $2.5 million to control the beetles. A program to reduce the population of little fire ants got $500,000, after being zeroed out of the budget in 2021.

But the overall efforts have been inadequate, according to experts on invasive species and those who are living with the effects of their proliferation.

“The state of emergency bell should have been rung six months ago, nine months ago, 10 months ago,” said Waimanalo resident Kuike Ohelo, a farmer and Hawaii food systems specialist for Arizona State University, adding that he believes the state’s response has been to “kick the can down the road” rather than face the magnitude of the problem and organize an effective community-wide response.

Surveys are underway at various locations on Oahu to verify the presence of little fire ants. The ants are trapped using peanut butter. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“There is so much we need to be doing, that we should be doing,” said Carol Kwan, an arborist based in Mililani who has been bitten by little fire ants and considers them a worrisome menace. “A lot of people think someone else will report it, that someone else will handle it.”

Some experts on invasive species applauded the senator’s effort.

Christy Martin, program manager for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, said she had seen the questions Keohokalole had raised with DOA in his letter.

“They are great questions, things we have wanted to know a long time, foundational questions,” she said.

She added that the Department of Agriculture is the government department best suited to provide answers. “It’s their kuleana to prevent invasive species from entering the state and to prevent them from moving between islands and within islands,” she said.

In 2021, state officials reported there was a coqui frog infestation on Oahu; now there are more than 10,000 in Waimanalo. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region)

Ohelo said Waimanalo residents have been meeting regularly for the past two years, within three special committees created by the town’s neighborhood board, to track the emerging problems threatening agriculture in the area and to press officials to take action to remediate them.

He said they have been disappointed by the response.

Residents had offered to form work groups to seek out and eliminate coqui frogs, he said, but state officials discouraged them from doing so by saying it was too dangerous or might pose a legal liability.

“We are willing to address all these invasive issues. Just enable the community by way of information and resources to assist the state, to assist the county in addressing these issues, and whatever mitigation efforts that need to happen,” Ohelo said.

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

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