By LISSA FOX
POSTED: October 11, 2009
Through quarterly “blitz” assessments, inspectors know that Mexican avocados can harbor an insect not found in Hawaii. In this picture, Wayne Uradomo is inspecting an incoming avocado.
Have you ever wondered if anyone reads those agricultural forms each airline passenger fills out when flying to Hawaii?
Before landing, flight attendants on every Mainland flight hand out forms asking if passengers are carrying fruit, vegetables, pets, soil or fungus.
As time-consuming as the form appears, it is a necessary tool in the fight against invasive species and is only one part of a system to stop invasive species from becoming established on Maui.
Agricultural inspectors at the Kahului Airport carefully review those forms, thereby helping to prevent passengers from unwittingly bringing invasive species into the state.
Elsewhere at the airport, at the Alien Species Action Plan (ASAP) inspection facility tucked away at the end of the runway, inspectors pore over containers of produce, plants and cut flowers.
Any plant material coming through the airport – whether destined for a garden, dinner table or floral arrangement – is screened carefully for plant diseases or hitchhiking bugs that threaten Hawaii’s agriculture or environment.
The Hawaii Department of Agriculture has a staff of 13 inspectors on Maui. These pest sleuths are tasked with inspecting air freight from early in the morning until the last flight of the day, while also covering maritime shipments and conducting inspections at local businesses.
The highly trained inspectors are able to identify a wide range of insects and spiders as well as fungi, bacteria and viruses.
If inspectors find an obviously infested shipment or an insect or disease that is new to Hawaii, they have the authority to reject or destroy the infected plant material.
Infested cargo may be frozen until the hitchhikers are dead. If the cargo is infected with a disease, the material is placed in an autoclave, which uses pressurized steam and superhot water (248 degrees Fahrenheit) to kill any microorganisms before the cargo is thrown away.
The Maui ASAP inspection facility is a model for invasive-species prevention for the entire state. Built in response to concerns about invasive species following the expansion of Kahului Airport, the facility was completed in December 2007.
To prevent winged stowaways from leaving the facility, inspection bays at the ASAP facility are screened and equipped with bug zappers. The bay where high-risk material is inspected is isolated completely from the outside. High-efficiency particulate air filters on the ventilation system help prevent the escape of harmful organisms.
Prior to completion of the building, inspections were done on the open tarmac, with no ability to contain whatever lurked inside the cargo.
The state Department of Agriculture hopes to build similar facilities throughout the state.
Inspectors base their decisions about what to inspect on risk assessments, which are conducted throughout the year.
Every quarter, they spend two weeks examining 100 percent of the material coming through the facility. They record everything they find as well as where it was grown.
This is no small task considering that more than 95 percent of Hawaii’s produce is imported.
In one particularly infested shipment, a single head of lettuce was discovered to harbor 26 different species of insects, with 19 of those species not known to occur in Hawaii.
This is not a job for amateurs.
These quarterly "blitz" assessments help inspectors prioritize their work during the rest of the year.
For example, inspectors know that avocados from Mexico tend to harbor an insect not found in Hawaii. So when Mexican avocados are on the cargo manifest, they inspect the avocados thoroughly; whereas apples from the Pacific Northwest rarely carry insects of concern and don’t need the same level of scrutiny.
Inspectors work with importers, letting them know what is being destroyed and why.
Importers respond by making sure material is clean before being shipped; it’s in their financial interest to avoid having their shipments rejected or destroyed.
Thanks to the work of the inspectors with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, most invasive species make it only as far as the ASAP inspection facility.
To help keep it that way, the next time you return from the Mainland or a foreign country, be sure you’re not bringing in plants or animals that could harm our agricultural industry or environment. And take the time to fill out, honestly and completely, the agricultural form.
Early detection of invasive species is critical. Maybe that’s why the HDOA facility is called ASAP.
* Lissa Fox is public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. The Idaho native holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. "Kia’i Moku" (Guarding the Island) is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.