by John Burnett
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
About 60 people attended a forum on controversial red mangrove eradication Tuesday night at Pahoa Community Center.
The meeting was an effort by the Hawaii County mayor’s office to let all sides sound off on the eradication. The county, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Big Island Invasive Species Council and the environmental group Malama O Puna are among those being sued by Puna resident Sydney Ross Singer over the application of herbicide to mangroves at Wai ‘Opae Marine Life Conservation District in Kapoho, Pohoiki and Onekahakaha Beach Park in Keaukaha. Also named in the suit is the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which provided Malama O Puna a $40,000 grant to eradicate the mangroves.
Malama O Puna’s website calls the species “aggressive aliens that replace coral pool and other coastal habitats, shading out coral, dropping large amounts of organic matter, and resulting in muck-filled pools with little diversity.”
Singer’s lawsuit contends that that the removal of mangroves will have the opposite effect, harm both native and exotic fish, reduce shoreline protection from storm surge and tsunamis, and cause “irrevocable harm to the environment.”
The suit is still in litigation.
Hunter Bishop, an executive assistant to Mayor Billy Kenoi, explained that Kenoi was on his way from Kona. The mayor arrived about 90 minutes into the meeting, during public commentary.
“We understand that there are some people who are concerned about the safety of the shoreline where they swim, surf and fish,” Bishop said.
Ann Kobsa, MOP vice president, said that mangroves are well-established on the main Hawaiian Islands and the Big Island is “the only island where we have a decent chance of wiping it out.”
“It turns the native shoreline into a mangrove swamp. … It replaces native terrestrial plants, some of which are endangered,” she said. Kobsa said that “caffeine is 25 times more toxic” and table salt “one-and-a-half times more toxic” than the herbicide being used to eradicate mangrove.
“We really need the trust of the community to do something like this. We’re asking for your trust; we’re hoping to earn your trust,” Kobsa said.
Singer, who in the past has also gone to bat for coqui frogs and strawberry guava, species many consider nuisances, said “there’s really two basic issues here” — whether mangroves are good or bad or Hawaii, and “if they’re bad, is poisoning the shoreline the right way to go about this?”
Singer said the county Planning Department was wrong for issuing Malama O Puna a shoreline area management minor permit, which does not require public hearings, to authorize the eradication.
“There should have been an environmental assessment or something like that,” he added. “It would allow for public comments, more than just being told what’s gonna happen. One of the concerns is that Malama O Puna, regardless of their intentions, decided they were going to do what they wanted to do to the shoreline of Hawaii.
“… When you kill mangroves and leave them to rot in place, this is an experiment. … It’s a cheap alternative to hand removal, which is expensive.”
Rene Siracusa, MOP president countered: “Not all the mangroves are created equal” and called the red mangrove, a native of Florida and the Caribbean, “very different from most of the other mangroves.”
“This was never an experiment. We knew from the giddy-up that the herbicide … would do the job,” she said. “… If he would drop the lawsuit, we would start removing the trees, because that’s a part of the project.”
Michael Hyson, research director of the Sirius Institute in Pahoa, called the mangrove eradication project “a subjective agenda, because there’s no science to it.”
“If you carry this to the logical outcome, you poison the entire island because everybody’s an invader,” he said. “… Invaders used to be called ‘pioneers.'”
Fisherman Eli Sanderson said there should have been an environmental assessment.
“It would have been due process,” he said. “… From green to brown is a major change to me, to my environment. … I feel an EA would have been the proper thing to do so the public could have given input.”
Lani Kaawaloa testified: “the devastating destruction of island mangroves makes me physically sick.”
“We woke up one morning and the dirty deed was done,” she said. “… It seems this was done in the sleaziest way possible. We should have been informed on the front page of the newspaper and on the radio and television, instead of having this swept under the lauhala mat.”
Jan Schipper, project manager of the Big Island Invasive Species Council, said that literature put out by the Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations that support the removal of mangroves has been “misquoted and miscited” by opponents.
“If you like beaches and you like access to them, I don’t think you’re gonna like mangroves that much,” he said.
Pat Conant, a state Department of Agriculture entomologist, said that “Malama O Puna and BIISC have done their homework” and that the pesticide used in the project “breaks down in sea water.”
“It’s gonna break down and the ocean’s gonna take it away,” he said. … It might take a little while, but it will be gone.”
Bill Steiner, dean of the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, said the sight of dead mangroves on the shorelines is a temporary phenomenon.
“The damage you’re seeing now is gonna pass,” he said. “And when it does pass, you will have your open seaways, you will have access to your shorelines, you’ll be able to have seals coming back and nesting on those shorelines, and in the long run, it will all be better.”