Short-staffed state inspectors struggle to keep away pests

Maui is down to only a handful of agricultural inspectors a day – the frontline defense against new invasive species arrivals such as the little fire ant and coqui frogs – and there does not appear to be any relief in sight with a deadly fungus rapidly killing Big Island ohia trees.

Eight inspectors and one supervisor are tasked with monitoring all plants and produce entering Maui, along with a host of other tasks, state Department of Agriculture officials said. Inspector positions have sat vacant on Maui for several years, and the department is discussing the possibility of moving a couple of the positions to help efforts on the Big Island.

The Maui Invasive Species Committee and local farmers are calling for more inspectors and increased funding to prevent new pest arrivals and the spread of existing threats.

“Without adequate inspection, we’re just going to be inundated by invasive species like the little fire ant,” Haiku orchid farmer Darrell Tanaka said on Friday. “The fire ant can just cripple our economy. You don’t want it anywhere near your neighborhood because once you get it (Agriculture Department officials) can quarantine your entire farm and getting rid of it is extremely difficult.

“My problem with all of this is why have the positions not been filled?”

In 2009, Maui saw its number of agricultural inspectors fall from 17 to 13 because of state budget reductions. Three inspectors left in 2011 and 2012, leaving Maui with six inspectors stationed at Kahului Airport and two at its maritime office, in addition to already vacant positions.

Amy Takahashi, acting manager of the department’s Plant Quarantine Branch, said that filling the vacant Maui positions and others across the state “is a very high priority.” She said that the reason for the delay is “not a money thing” or a lack of qualified applicants.

“We want to fill the positions. We just have so many vacancies to fill in the department, and these things take time,” Takahashi said Friday. “It’s a process to get the hiring initiated and completed.”

Takahashi said she could not speak for the entire department and how it prioritizes vacancies that need to be filled. She also did not know how long the hiring process for inspectors takes and said it is handled by the department’s human resources office.

Attempts to reach Department of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright were unsuccessful Friday.

Kyle Yagi, supervisor for Maui’s quarantine branch, said that filling the vacancies “is going to be a while,” and positions have not yet been opened to departmental transfers or the public. The branch has been forced to make adjustments to its work due to the shortage, and it no longer collects and reviews agricultural declaration forms on night flights.

“We just can’t do everything. We had to leave something out,” Yagi said.

The Maui branch is required by state law to collect and review every form filled out by passengers and clear cargo from airplanes on a daily basis, Yagi said. But there are not enough inspectors to cover the night shift, so they pick up and review forms in the morning.

The branch recently received approval for overtime pay to monitor night flights, but it is only for a few days a month, Yagi said. The monitoring will be unannounced, and pest-filled cargo is generally shipped away or destroyed.

While the branch has nine staff members, not all of them are on duty at the same time. The workers must cover 365 days a year, so schedules are spread out across vacations and days off.

If the Maui branch were to fill two positions, Yagi would place them on the night shift, followed by the maritime office, which monitors all cargo shipped into Kahului Harbor as well as other duties.

Inspectors at the maritime office must be at a barge when it arrives, because shippers are not required to wait for state inspectors, Yagi said. It is difficult for inspectors to wait at the harbor because they are constantly needed elsewhere, he added.

“If the guy is there to pick it up, he can just pick it up,” Yagi said noting that barges have arrived on Maui with little fire ants. “If we don’t have someone there, we miss it and we can’t just leave someone there because we need that inspector to do a lot of different things.”

Yagi said department officials have never had the luxury of having an inspector waiting for workers to unload the barge for inspection.

“But eventually, we would like to have something like that,” he said.

Yagi said that the bulk of produce comes from the Mainland, and the department’s primary focus is on cargo arriving from domestic flights. And, interisland cargo inspections could use more help, he added.

“We’re spread thin. We have to prioritize what’s most important and know we can’t do as thorough as a job as we’d like,” he said. “We also can’t hold up inspections. For example, if you have 10 cans of produce, you have to prioritize what you’re going to look at because you can’t look through it all. If you went throughout it all, by the time you’re done, the produce is no longer useable.”

Takahashi said that officials have not decided whether to move the vacant Maui inspector positions to help aid the Hilo and Puna areas affected by rapid ohia death. The disease has killed ohia trees on more than 15,000 acres.

The disease has not spread outside of the Big Island, officials said.

With the rise of invasive species across the state, Tanaka no longer brings in outside plant material to his 2-acre Haiku farm. He said he raises his own seedlings and is in constant contact with the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

“It’s too risky to bring in plant material from the Big Island, but that’s not to say our neighbor can’t go to any store and buy infested plants,” he said. “It can affect our businesses, and without inspectors you’re really losing the frontline defense. Infestations can start anywhere.”

“Somebody on Oahu is not doing their job,” Tanaka continued. “They’re not properly filling these positions so inspectors can go out there and prevent the invasion of the little fire ants. Their upper management is broken, and it sounds like to me that the Department of Ag is broken and dysfunctional and can’t do their job.”

Simon Russell, who sits on the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, said that the state nearly quarantined the Big Island due to the rapid ohia death, which “would’ve closed down every nursery” on the island. Plants transported off of that island must now have a permit.

Russell said that the Agriculture Department only gets about 0.4 percent of the state’s budget, which pales in comparison to the 80 percent split evenly between the state departments of health and education. He said that, with more money, the department could immediately fill vacancies and do a lot more to combat invasive species in Hawaii.

“Somehow we have to get the governor to increase the budget of the Department of Ag,” he said. “I can tell you as a person on the board, the budget for the whole department is really low. We don’t give agriculture the priority we should have in the state . . . We’re going to have to support agriculture if we want to see it carry on.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.