After 30 years of protecting native animals and plants, the head of Hawaii’s agricultural inspection operation leaves behind a short-handed and beleaguered team today, worried that invading species are slipping into the islands.
“Shipments are backed up but are still being inspected. That’s the good part,” said Domingo Cravalho Jr., who is retiring as inspection and compliance section chief for the state Department of Agriculture. “Because of the lack of resources and lack of inspectors and the reduction in the amount of good inspections, things are getting through. …
“It’s overwhelming at times and some individuals may be overlooking things or bypassing things. Under the circumstances, we just don’t have enough eyes and ears out there.”
Domingo Cravalho Jr., inspection and compliance section chief for the state Department of Agriculture, has been credited with quickly responding to several crises through the years:
- Helping to develop Hawaii’s rapid response programs to protect the islands from brown tree snakes, red fire ants and other pests.
- Working with Christmas tree growers in Oregon and Washington to remove garter snakes, voles, snails, slugs, yellow jackets and beetles on the mainland before the trees are shipped to Hawaii.
- Developing a plan that allowed Hawaii’s more than 200 flower growers to continue shipping to California despite a quarantine because of the islands’ light brown apple moths, which can devastate crops and vineyards on the mainland.
- Continuing to work on a quarantine plan to prevent the spread of the Kona coffee berry borer beetle from spreading from farms in Waimea and Kula to coffee-growing areas of other islands.
- Working with then-newcomer Whole Foods Market to develop business relationships with Hawaii farmers to provide Whole Foods with leafy greens, rather than import organic greens that are highly susceptible to pests and would have to be destroyed. “We appreciated the advice we received from Domingo Cravalho to avoid the importation of leafy greens as much as possible, due to their tendency to serve as a vector for invasive species,” Claire Sullivan, Whole Foods Market Hawaii’s vendor and community relations coordinator, said in an e-mail. While Whole Foods has successfully avoided importation of head lettuce, she said, “Unfortunately demand for organic leafy greens such as kale and chard still outstrips local supply. Whole Foods Market is working with Hawaii farmers to increase the local production of these items.”
The number of calls from people reporting pests has steadily dropped over the last few years — from an average of 36 calls per month in 2007 to 21 calls per month this year.
But with fewer inspectors, the individual workload has increased, Cravalho said.
“The furloughs and reductions in force have taken their toll,” he said.
Cravalho, 55, is taking a job on Guam and Saipan with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, working to keep brown tree snakes from spreading to Hawaii and other Pacific islands.
The past 18 months at the department have been particularly rough on Cravalho, who oversaw the layoffs of 26 of 97 positions across the islands beginning in August 2009. The cutbacks including eliminating the department’s 30-year-old canine enforcement program that had been centered on eight tourist-friendly beagles.
Losing so many inspectors in so short a period meant Hawaii importers have to hire inspectors on overtime to get their produce to market in time — costs that continue to be passed along to consumers.
While he worries about the overall effect on shippers, shoppers and his overworked staff, Cravalho also felt the personal toll.
“That was one of the low lights of this position, having to tell someone they’re losing their job,” Cravalho said.
The Legislature last session approved money to rehire 22 inspectors. But the funds have not been released and no one has been rehired.
So with an understaffed crew, Cravalho went out alone after work last week to hunt a single coqui frog annoying residents near a stream in Pauoa Valley.
“It eluded me,” Cravalho said the next morning in the department’s Sand Island offices. “So I’ll have to go out again. The job doesn’t stop.”
But time has run out on Cravalho’s 30-year state career spent chasing down the noisy coqui frog and all of the other invasive plants and pests that arrive in ships, jets, cargo containers, military equipment and passenger luggage and that carry the potential to harm Hawaii’s native crops and animals.
“It’s almost impossible to measure the impact that losing Domingo will have on this department,” said Darcy Oishi, the department’s biological control section chief with the plant pest control branch, who once worked under Cravalho. “It’s hard to wrap your brain around the fact that we’re losing him.”
Cravalho’s retirement and move to Guam and Saipan comes at a particularly low point for the department, Oishi said.
“It’s been horrible,” Oishi said. “Morale is really low. The work that all those people would do is falling through the cracks or is being picked up by people who aren’t adequately trained in those areas. Our ability in almost everything we do has been impacted.”
Until a replacement for Cravalho is named and begins work, “there is going to be a significant gap — a puka — in our defense system,” said Christy Martin, coordinator for the Coordinating Group on Alien Species. “He’s the pedal-to-the metal guy. He sees the big plans and figures out how to make it work, yet he shows up for coqui frog hunts, too. Trying to fill those big shoes is a real challenge, especially when we can’t even start looking right away for a replacement.”
Sandra Kunimoto, chairwoman of the department, called Cravalho “a special person who has had an amazing 30-year career.”
She hopes to fill his position “soon.”
“With Domingo’s departure, we have big shoes to fill,” Kunimoto said.
Until then, Cravalho continues to look at the big picture, while also serving arrest warrants and picking through neighborhoods for invaders, including that coqui.
Before he leaves for good, Cravalho plans to hunt that frog one last time.
“I had a nickname for him — Domingo ‘Rapid Response’ Cravalho,” said Janelle Saneishi, department spokeswoman. “Because whenever there was a report of possible snake sightings, coqui frogs or other illegal animals, Domingo was on it.”
Even when he’s on Guam and Saipan searching for brown tree snakes, Cravalho said his work will still benefit the islands by keeping Hawaii snake-free.
“Although I’ll be wearing a different hat,” Cravalho said, “I’ll still be protecting Hawaii.”