Mamalu Poepoe project traps and monitors invasive pests


Crews from island-based invasive species committees from across the state receive training on signs of coconut rhinoceros beetle. The training is done as part of the Mamalu Poepoe project, an interagency working group designed to increase the monitoring capacity at airports statewide. -- LEYLA KAUFMAN photo

Since Polynesian times, people have unwittingly carried plants and animals with them as they traveled to Hawaii.

Ants and skinks were among the first of these hitchhikers inadvertently brought to the islands. The natural barriers of isolation that at one time prevented so many plants and animals from reaching the islands have been wiped out.

Every day, between 25,000 and 30,000 people fly to Hawaii from throughout the world. In 2016, 655,000 tons of air cargo and mail arrived through the airports across the state. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture inspects much of this cargo for hitchhiking pests, but pests can slip through — species that stowaway in cargo holds or between airline shipping containers, species inadvertently picked up at one destination and carried to another, from international airports to interisland airports.

The Mamalu Poepoe project is designed to address that puka. Mamalu means protected; Poepoe is an acronym for point of entry, point of exit. The name connotes a “lei of protection.”

According to Leyla Kaufman, coordinator of the Mamalu Poepoe project, the main goal of the project is to increase monitoring capacity at the airports. “In most instances, the agencies involved have some level of monitoring going at airports, Mamalu Poepoe fills in any gaps,” she said.

The seed for the project was planted in 2013 when the Hawaii Department of Health was so low on funding it had no capacity to trap and monitor mosquitos around the airports. Then-department Deputy Director Gary Gill reached out to the interagency Hawaii Invasive Species Council and planning for the Mamalu Poepoe project began.

This coordinated working group leverages the expertise and manpower of multiple state agencies, primarily the departments of Health, Transportation and Agriculture, under the umbrella of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Hawaii Invasive Species Council. The University of Hawaii provides a flexible umbrella for funding between multiple agencies.

Work occurs in the restricted access areas of six airports statewide: Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui, Hilo and Kona. Traps and surveys are designed to target mosquitos, ants, coconut rhinoceros beetle and honeybees. These insects are selected because they are notorious hitchhikers that have an impact on agriculture and human health. By monitoring, the Mamalu Poepoe project can better address both the interisland spread of pests as well as the introduction of species to the state.

“Hawaii has six species of mosquitos but there are hundreds out there,” said Kauffman. “One of the species found on Big Island but not the rest of the state is Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that is the optimal carrier for dengue and zika, it can also transmit chikungunya and yellow fever.”

Specialists from the state agencies design the monitoring and survey methods, but given scarce staffing and travel funds, they rely on crew from the island-based invasive species committees to do the groundwork of checking traps and surveying for ants. Crew go through species specific trainings (as well as background checks for security authorization), then visit the airport every four to six weeks to check the swarm traps for honeybees, the lure traps for coconut rhinoceros beetles and mosquitos, or survey for ants.

The Mamalu Poepoe project is flexible enough to fill gaps in research. “Things have changed quite a bit since the Department of Health was monitoring for mosquitos at airports,” said Kauffman, who has begun a research project evaluating mosquitos to enhance trapping efforts of vector control.

In the three years from proposed idea to actual implementation, the landscape around invasive species has changed. Coconut rhinoceros beetle arrived in the state, and the dengue outbreak triggered the Legislature to restore funding for vector control.

Josh Atwood, program supervisor of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, said it is a boon for the project. “Rather than starting from scratch . . . it has allowed us to tap into much more expertise than we would have had otherwise, and is helping support a much larger network of folks working on a piece of the monitoring puzzle.”

Learn more about the project online at

* Lissa Fox Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She 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.