PUKALANI - Plant quarantine officials said last week that laying off more than half the state's agricultural inspectors would create such a logjam at Hawaii ports that it could cause shortages similar to those seen during shipping strikes.
Carol Okada, manager of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture's Plant Quarantine Branch, said she has not been able to develop a plan for how her department will continue its core functions after it loses 52 employees, 50 of them inspectors, to layoffs planned for November.
She said food shipments to Maui and the other Neighbor Islands, which because of staff shortages would now have to be routed through Honolulu for inspection, would have to sit on the docks until the state's remaining inspectors could look at them, with the risk that some food could spoil in the unchilled containers.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
Matthew Olbert, plant quarantine inspector for the state, checks a container at Kahului Harbor on Friday morning.
But she said the staffing cuts were so unprecedented that she had no way of predicting how long the delays would be.
"There's such a reliance on imports," she said Thursday. "When this is impacted, it's just like having a dock strike, but in Hawaii. It's a shutdown."
The plant quarantine branch would lose 46 percent of its total staff in the layoffs, and 54 percent of its agricultural inspectors. On Maui, six of the current 17 inspector positions would be cut. Of the remaining 11 positions, six are paid for by the state Department of Transportation to work only at Kahului Airport.
Russell Pang, spokesman for Gov. Linda Lingle, said the state administration recognized that the Department of Agriculture had many positions that would be cut in the layoffs and was aware of what the impacts of those cuts would be.
He noted that Lingle had to target positions paid for out of the state's General Fund in order to balance the budget. That meant certain agencies, like the Department of Agriculture, took a bigger hit than departments whose budgets are drawn from special funds, he said.
A major question for the Plant Quarantine Branch remains how to prioritize once it no longer has enough personnel to carry out all its former responsibilities.
Okada said she assumed only that inspectors would implement a "food first" policy, prioritizing checks of imported food over all other duties. But she said she needed more direction from the state administration over how to implement that policy.
Unanswered questions included which containers should be checked first when inspectors can't get to them all, and whether shipping containers that inspectors simply don't have time to open should be allowed into the state unchecked, or rejected and sent back to where they came from.
"There hasn't been any guidance," Okada said in an interview at the state Department of Agriculture offices in Kahului. "We're waiting."
The branch is tasked with inspecting all imports of produce; live fish, shellfish, birds and small pets; plants; cut flowers; seeds and animal feed; and intercepting stowaway pests from snakes to ants - anything that could pose a threat to people, local crops or the environment.
Okada said her division is conducting risk assessments on different kinds of incoming shipments.
"It's to determine which ones we don't have to open," she said.
Earlier on Thursday, Okada and other state agriculture workers and officials spoke with farmers, conservationists and community members at Hannibal Tavares Community Center, in a meeting organized by the Maui Invasive Species Committee.
Ryan Earehart, produce manager for Mana Foods in Paia, said he was concerned about how long it would take for produce to make it to Maui. Instead of being shipped directly from the Mainland, produce would have to be shipped to Honolulu, wait there for inspection, then be loaded onto a barge for the trip to Maui.
That means quality will go down and prices will go up, he said.
"I can envision a huge increase in cost to get fresh product over here," he said.
That could increase demand for local fruits and vegetables, but if more invasive pests are making it into the state that could hurt farmers, he noted.
With its remaining inspectors focused on food imports, the Plant Quarantine Branch will end some of its other services, including its self-certification program, which allows growers to ship nursery plants and cut flowers directly to the Mainland. Maui has 25 plant nurseries that rely on the self-certification program.
"Their businesses will become very vulnerable," Okada said. "To sell only within Hawaii, it's too small a market."
She also said inspections of exports from Hawaii will likely become a lower priority under the "food first" policy.
That could put Hawaii farmers who ship crops to California at risk. The state has already been put on notice by California and federal officials that too many pests have been found in shipments from Hawaii, and that if the situation is not corrected, the Golden State could impose a ban on all Hawaii agricultural products.
The Plant Quarantine Branch had recently started a "clean export initiative" in an attempt to stave off the embargo, but now that could be on hold.
"This will not help, by any means," Okada said. "Even when we were full force, this (warning) was still coming down."
Okada said the leadership in her division would maintain the position that all incoming containers must be inspected before they could enter the state. But she acknowledged that backlogs could get so bad that higher authorities within the state administration could deem the situation an emergency and send down an order to "facilitate commerce" by allowing shipments to pass without being checked.
"That's the worst-case scenario," she said. "If they tell us to facilitate it out, we're going to have invasive species problems."
Topping her list of boogeymen are the brown tree snake, which decimated bird populations on Guam and is associated with an average 46 power outages there each year; foreign species of mosquitoes and biting midges that are known vectors for malaria and dengue fever; and red imported fire ants, whose bites have caused at least 80 known deaths worldwide.
The fire ants create huge underground nests that can overrun open spaces like golf courses, schoolyards and public parks. Such a large amount of poison is needed to exterminate the swarms that it can enter underground water supplies.
"It would totally change our lifestyle," Okada said.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.