Legislators target rapid ohia death

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The entire Big Island delegation to the state House of Representatives is endorsing a bill seeking to address the growing problem known as rapid ohia death.

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The entire Big Island delegation to the state House of Representatives is endorsing a bill seeking to address the growing problem known as rapid ohia death.

Scientists have observed mortality rates in heavily infested areas of between 50 and 90 percent due to the disease, which is caused by a fungus.

Rapid ohia death was initially observed in Puna, but in the past several years it has rapidly spread to areas including Kona, Ocean View, Honaunau and Gleenwood, said Lisa Keith, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientists say the disease, which is also known as ohia wilt, has the capability of killing ohia trees statewide, but so far it has only been observed on Hawaii Island. It has not yet been found in North Hilo, Hamakua or Kohala.

House Bill 1597 directs the state Department of Agriculture to research and report on the causes and possible control measures for the recently identified disease. The bill was introduced and passed in its first reading on the House floor Wednesday, the first day of the Legislative Session,

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-Kailua-Kona, seeks to appropriate $200,000 to fund the preparation of the report, which is to be presented to legislators during the 2017 legislative session.

“The Legislature finds that rapid ohia death disease is devastating thousands of acres of native forest on the island of Hawaii,” the bill reads. “The ohia makes up about 50 percent of the state’s native forest and is a keystone species in native watershed areas.

Lowen said Thursday that her bill had so far received widespread support, despite legislators often having their own pet projects to hold their attention.

“All those things are important,” she said of their various projects. “It’s hard to say that one thing is more important than another. But this particular one has the potential to be quite devastating. The prospect of this spreading is really frightening. … It would be devastating to our native forests. … There’s impacts it would have to endangered species, and to our watersheds.”

State Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, agreed. As chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Tsuji said he has long championed efforts to combat destructive invasive species and diseases that can impact Hawaii Island’s flora and fauna.

“Not only is it a big threat, it’s a continuation of a neverending journey of invasive species threatening our island,” he said.

Tsuji said the state currently lacks the resources to respond appropriately to such threats, pointing out that federal inspectors at Hawaii ports, who inspect shipments leaving the state, outnumber state Department of Agriculture inspectors, who look at shipments entering Hawaii, by a margin of 4-1.

He added that the public can help fund such measures by providing their support and testimony as bills such as HB 1597 make their way through the legislative process.

“Hearing from the citizenry is so very important,” Tsuji said. “I’ve been imploring the media to keep the public abreast and informed of what’s happening as we go through committee hearings.”

Keith said she was excited to see the bill making its way through the Legislature, because it will provide funding to look deeper into a mystery that she and her fellow researchers are just beginning to learn about.

“We’re continuing to do new things, like fungicide testing. We’ve got six new potential chemicals we’re looking at (that could kill the ohia wilt fungus),” she said. “And we understand more about the genetics and biology now. But we’re just scratching the surface. (The appropriation) will allow us to do real detailed studies. I think we’ll make more progress in a lot of areas, producing more knowledge and information to lead to better management and control.”

In August, the state Board of Agriculture placed Big Island ohia under quarantine, limiting the transport and shipping of the trees and products made from ohia. However, the fungus has continued its rapid spread across the island after its initial discovery in Puna in 2010.

In a response to questions emailed Thursday afternoon, University of Hawaii Extension Forester J.B. Friday called the quarantine a “bright spot” amid rather bleak news regarding the spread of the fungus.

“We have tested several shipments of logs that were to be shipped to other islands and found the fungus on several of these, which were then not shipped,” he wrote. “We appreciate the good work of the Hawaii Dept. of Agriculture.”

Friday added that support from government and private foundations has been strong early on.

“Our task now is to keep the momentum going …” he stated. “We have funds and are in the process of hiring scientists to look at the disease itself, the molecular biology of the disease, insects that may carry the disease, and technicians and outreach staff. Much of the funding we have is only for the year 2016, though, so we really appreciate the legislators introducing a bill to fund ongoing efforts to understand and manage this disease that affects our forests and all of us.”

In a related step, a separate bill also introduced by Lowen seeks to allow the state government to respond more quickly when future threats arise. House Bill 1596 creates an invasive species rapid response fund for the purpose of eradicating newly detected invasive species.

The fund would be an important step in preventing species from becoming entrenched before government agencies can react, as was the case with fire ants, coqui frogs and other species which have run roughshod over Hawaii’s ecosystems in recent years, she said.

“Acting early means we can eradicate (invasive species), instead of ending up spending much more just dealing with controlling them,” Lowen said. “Once they get rooted in the state, all we can hope to do is manage them.”

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The bill passed its first reading on Wednesday.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaii tribune-herald.com.

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