Monday | February 20, 2017
About Us | Contact | Subscribe

Biosecurity plan finalized

Updated: 
January 11, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — The state of Hawaii released Tuesday its first ever interagency biosecurity plan, an ambitious and multi-faceted initiative intended to safeguard against invasive species posing threats to human health, endangered species and major state industries.

The plan, pondered and discussed for years before the project team began hammering out details last March, includes nearly 150 prioritized action items to be implemented over a 10-year period beginning in July 2017.

Spearheaded by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the biosecurity initiative brought state agencies, federal partners, the state legislature, the University of Hawaii and private industry concerns together in one of the most collaborative and comprehensive endeavors in Hawaii’s history.

“We just don’t have the financial and human resources to do it by ourselves, the problem is much greater than just (an HDOA) issue,” Scott Enright, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, said in a release. “This plan gives us the framework or path to better address and manage the problems of invasive species.”

Investing in the future

The cost of the plan is estimated at $378 million. Josh Atwood, program supervisor for the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, said the amount is less than it seems when viewed as a percentage of state spending.

The HDOA received roughly o.4 percent of the nearly $14 billion state budget for fiscal year 2016-17, while the DLNR was allocated just under 1 percent. That’s for the entirety of their operations, Atwood said, so the amount spent on biosecurity is even smaller.

“We’re talking about really small percentage point increases in cost to do a much better job making sure we can protect the ability to feed ourselves and maintain our natural areas,” he said.

The philosophy, Atwood explained, is spend some now to save a lot more later.

“It’s hard to quantify (long-term economic benefits),” he said. “The focus was not on dollars saved but the value of protected industries.”

Through literature review, the project team estimates that Hawaii’s agricultural industry is worth $600 million annually, while its horticulture industry has a $70 million annual value. Tourism brings in $14.9 billion every year.

“Say we have another statewide dengue outbreak, or Zika becomes endemic to Hawaii, or little fire ants overrun hotel areas. That would really impact a $15 billion industry,” Atwood said. “Then you get to natural resources, health and lifestyle, and that’s much more intangible. You can say it’s priceless.”

High priorities

The bulk of the funds will go to what Atwood described as critical aspects of the plan, namely asking for more inspector positions and building new facilities. Those costs are likely to come a few years down the line to allow time to plan.

The Great Recession hit state agencies hard, said Micah Munekata, HDOA’s legislative coordinator, and the workforce reduction in the aftermath was significant. The HDOA’s biosecurity program staff has dropped 18 percent since 2008, while incoming cargo tonnage by air and by sea have both increased significantly over the last 25 to 30 years.

Re-staffing is only the beginning, Munekata said, and clearly defined regulatory powers and departmental collaboration to allocate human resources effectively are equally important.

This speaks directly to one of the primary gaps project members identified when crafting the elaborate plan — the regulation of non-agricultural products, which in recent years have provided an under-considered pathway for invasive species both into and between the Hawaiian Islands.

“It’s never been a mandate of the HDOA to inspect all commodities,” Munekata said. “Is it the HDOA’s responsibility to inspect transportation of heavy machinery between islands or is it the Department of Transportation’s issue to conduct such inspections?”

Multi-faceted approach

Monitoring non-agricultural commodities is listed as a top priority within the pre-border approach to biosecurity, the first stage of the three-pronged system the state will implement. But like several action items, it’s also applicable to strategies developed for border and post-border biosecurity, the two other arms of the plan.

A fourth area of interest is public education and outreach, which will focus on initiatives like public service announcements made by airlines servicing Hawaii to curb biosecurity risks posed by tourists.

Post-border biosecurity focuses primarily on controlling invasive species already established on one or several islands, which District 6 Rep. Nicole Lowen — who represents Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa and Honokohau — said is crucial for the Big Island.

“We have a lot more of the horticulture industry here and plants being imported,” she said. “And we also have a lot more remote areas, so when things do take hold, it’s more challenging … to get back there and control.”

Inspecting every item moving in and out of island harbors and airports appears on its face a daunting task that might irk private industry in its potential to negatively impact commerce. But Atwood said addressing another gap, investment in new technologies, will actually expedite the import process.

Electronic manifesting, a process by which importers digitally log cargo that would then be made available to the HDOA, allows for a quick assessment of what cargo is likely to provide pathways for invasive species. Based on past risk assessments administered by a fully-staffed inspection team, the HDOA could prioritize inspections ultimately resulting in quicker cargo flow, Atwood said.

“The way the plan is developed, it’s not meant to be anti-industry by any stretch,” Atwood said. “If we can do this correctly, it’ll benefit industry as well as Hawaii’s natural and agricultural areas at the same time.”

Immediate action

The plan’s action items have been prioritized by critical value, but logistics of such a complex endeavor demand a chronological re-ordering of implementation not necessarily reflective of inherent value.

One example Atwood provided is $180,000 in planning funds for a new biological control research facility listed as a line item in Gov. David Ige’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Biocontrol is the process of identifying a predator for an invasive species, generally traced to the area of origin. After rigorous testing to determine with a high degree of probability that introducing the predator into Hawaii is unlikely to have unintended consequences, the predator is set loose in the wild where it preys on the invasive species, reducing it to a manageable level. At that point, the predator begins to die off naturally as it has no other sources of sustenance.

Atwood mentioned biocontrol as one of the most crucial action items in the biosecurity plan as it utilizes natural processes to replace costly control measures, but planning must be completed before the facility can be green lit.

Other early measures include $5 million for an agricultural loan program to help farmers establish themselves and reduce the demand for imported agricultural produce, as well as asking for the full employment restoration of the vector control branch to monitor mosquitoes.

Too ambitious?

District 3 Rep. Richard Onishi — who represents Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown and Volcano — said the plan provides needed cohesion of the biosecurity problems facing Hawaii, but also criticized it for being too general.

While it wasn’t legislation that spurred the biosecurity plan, legislative action will be required at several stages over the next decade for implementation, mainly in the context of enacting policy changes and providing funding.

Onishi said the general qualities of the timelines for certain action items, as well the lack of express responsibility as to what entities will carry them out, may mean crucial aspects of the plan are never realized — or at least not realized within the 10-year implementation period.

“Say a department needs staffing, and it takes that department a long time to find and hire people that qualify. Then things get pushed down the road. In the case of biosecurity, the longer you wait the more of a problem it becomes,” Onishi said. “There are estimated costs, but when you come to the legislature, it’s not like (you can just ask for) a pot of money for a plan that has no details.”

Atwood noted characteristics of the biosecurity plan that were at odds with Onishi’s concerns, saying each action item is assigned to a lead agency with partner agencies listed out.

He also said each item is assigned to a particular biennium, or two-year state budget cycle, over the next decade, adding that about two-thirds are actually no-cost actions, just process suggestions on how staff at agencies and stakeholders can work together to work differently and more effectively.