State Senate unveils package of biosecurity bills

  • Courtesy photo Little fire ants are attracted to peanut butter on the end of a chopstick.

Three bills dealing with invasive species and their relationship to food security and biosecurity are being considered by the state Senate.

Senate Bill 1140, introduced by Big Island Sen. Kai Kahele, if passed, would fund a wide range of initiatives related to invasive species and biosecurity during the next two fiscal years.

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The measure, which was co-sponsored by fellow Big Island Sens. Russell Ruderman and Lorraine Inouye, on Friday passed the Water and Land Committee, which Kahele chairs. The vote was unanimous, with Maui Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, the committee’s vice chairman, excused.

The bill now goes to Ways and Means, the senate’s money committee.

“I think there’s a very strong chance it makes it through,” Kahele said. “I think the governor was clear in his message about how the state needs to take biosecurity a lot more seriously than it has in the past. And with cases of rapid ohia death showing up on other islands, with little fire ants showing up in Kaneohe, and the whole range of invasive species that are showing up in our communities, we’ve got to do something dramatically different than what we’ve done in the past.”

The legislation would provide up to $972,000 per year “for the Hawaii Invasive Species Council to support research and interagency projects” and $500,000 each year “for rapid ohia death response.”

The measure also would provide an unspecified amount to fund 10 full-time positions for the Department of Land and Natural Resources “to respond to invasive species in Hawaii’s protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries.”

Kahele said a particular concern that hasn’t received enough discussion is gorse, a perennial thorny shrub native to Western Europe that was introduced in Hawaii as a food plant for sheep and as a biological fence.

The DLNR classifies gorse as a “noxious weed” and its website said it “forms dense, impenetrable thickets that allow nothing else to grow.” Kahele described it as “a very invasive brush that is an ecological disaster, frankly, on the base of Maunakea.”

“You can even see it from Hilo … this dark shadow that’s wrapping itself around the lower Maunakea lands,” he said. “If we don’t do something about that, in 50 years, most of the lower elevation of Maunakea is going to be completely covered with this invasive species.”

The bill also requests an unspecified amount for fiscal year 2019-20 “to construct a coqui frog barrier fence and various requests for fencing to exclude invasive animals from protected areas” in Maui’s Maliko Gulch.

“That bill was broadly supported by DLNR and has a good chance of making it through the session,” Kahele said.

In addition to the DLNR, others submitting written testimony in favor of the measure include the state Department of Agriculture and The Nature Conservancy. The University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Agriculture and Human Resources supported the bill with amendments.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, a Leeward Oahu Democrat, also introduced a pair of biosecurity bills.

One, SB 485, passed the Agriculture and Environment Committee, which Gabbard chairs, unanimously and without amendment Wednesday. The measure would increase the 15 cent share of the $1.05 petroleum barrel tax deposited into the agricultural development and food security special fund to 30 cents per barrel.

According to the measure, the fund “may be used to, among other things, fund agricultural inspector positions and other activities intended to increase agricultural production or processing that may lead to reduced importation of food, fodder or feed.”

Submitting written testimony in the bill’s favor were the DLNR, Department of Agriculture, Hawaii Farm Bureau, Ulupono Initiative and Hawaii County Councilman Tim Richards, who chairs the County Council Committee on Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management.

The legislation now goes to Ways and Means, which hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing.

Gabbard’s other bill, SB 523, is an omnibus funding measure that would provide more than $6.54 million during the next two fiscal years for all aspects of biosecurity, including $300,000 each year to create an Invasive Species Rapid Response Special Fund.

The fund could be accessed if the Hawaii Invasive Species Council determines “one or more newly detected invasive species pose a substantial threat to the agriculture, commerce, economy, environment or public health” of the state. The council would then be able to request that the governor declare an invasive species emergency.

The bill also would provide $1 million each year for the Hawaii Invasive Species Council for “prevention, control and outreach projects, including but not limited to the invasive species committees in each county and the Hawaii Ant Lab”; $500,000 each year for rapid ohia death response, $394,110 each year for 10 full-time forestry and wildlife employees statewide, including two forestry and wildlife technicians for Hawaii Island; $172,368 each year “to remove invasive species in the forests”; $103,908 each year for four full-time positions in the Plant Quarantine Branch; $150,000 each year “to develop plans for a canine detection kennel and training facility” for the Department of Agriculture; and $650,000 for the coqui frog barrier on Maui.

The measure was referred to the Agriculture and Environment and Water and Land Committees, as well as Ways and Means, but no hearings have yet been scheduled.

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Ruderman, D-Puna, the Agriculture and Environment vice chairman, is a co-sponsor of both of Gabbard’s bills.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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