7/13/2017 Honolulu Star-Advertiser
By Susan Essoyan [email protected]
photo credit: DENNIS ODA / 2014
The coconut rhinoceros beetle is an invasive species that poses a threat to Hawaii’s environment.“How can you identify and mitigate today’s threats — let alone tomorrow’s — when you are using yesterday’s inspection practices?” State Auditor Les Kondo said in issuing the report.
The Plant Quarantine Branch’s mission is to detect invasive species arriving from the continental United States and from other islands in Hawaii. That’s a huge task because 34 million tons of domestic cargo is imported to the state each year. Only a small fraction of that — 2.5 percent — is inspected by the branch.
“They simply can’t inspect everything,” Kondo said. “That is really the reason why they need to move into and adopt 21st-century types of tools and techniques.”
The branch has spent more than $4.2 million over a decade to develop a central integrated database, known as Invicta. But the computer system can’t do the job needed: to act as a digital hub, helping guide inspections and interceptions based on risk, the auditor said.
“The branch lacks the data gathering and data analysis tools necessary to define and respond to threats posed by invasive species,” the auditor wrote in the report. “As a result, PQB inspectors operate in a bubble, inspecting today as they did yesterday. Meanwhile, new and emerging invasive species risks may be going unaddressed.”
In recent years, several pests have made their way to Hawaii and pose significant threats to its environment and agriculture, including the coffee berry borer, the coconut rhinoceros beetle and little fire ants.
Board of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright said the department agrees with the auditor that the database, which dates from the Lingle administration, is not up to the task.
“We’ve been actively working on a new software platform that basically is going to contract in the next month or so,” Enright said in a phone interview from Kauai. “We are on the same page as the auditor. Constructive criticism is good and we’ll take the constructive criticism that is in there and move forward.”
The audit also faulted the Plant Quarantine Branch for not sharing up-to-date information with inspectors. Instead, it said, training involves shadowing and “caveman style” communication, as one port supervisor put it, passing information verbally from one generation to the next.
Overall, the number of insect interceptions made by Plant Quarantine Branch inspectors across the state dropped to 800 in the 2016 fiscal year from 1,748 two years earlier, according to the audit.
The audit also described the Agriculture Department’s Plants and Animals Declaration Forms filled out by people arriving in Hawaii as of “limited value.” Few people declare such items and even fewer are intercepted.
Staff levels at the Plant Quarantine Branch have not recovered from 2009, when authorized positions were slashed by 30 percent. Although positions were restored in the 2013 fiscal year, many have yet to be filled. The staff count in 2016 was the same as four years earlier, at 71 positions.
The branch has had a lot of turnover in administration, with four managers since 2013, three of them serving in an acting capacity.
In its formal response, the Agriculture Department said the audit failed to consider the fiscal realities faced by the branch and the fact that it is just one of many players handling biosecurity for the state.
Filling inspector positions is challenging because they require a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, the state hiring process is slow, and wages are not competitive with federal agencies and private companies. But the department has hired six new inspectors this year and is recruiting seven more.
The Department of Agriculture is working with state and other partners to promote a Hawaii Invasive Species Authority to lead the multi-agency effort to combat invasive species.
“Do we need to do more work on biosecurity? That is without question,” Enright said. “It’s why the Ige administration was promoting the Hawaii Invasive Species Authority and the state biosecurity plan. We haven’t been able to pass that for two legislative sessions. We will be back for a third session and see if we can get it passed.”
Read the audit online at 808ne.ws/PQBaudit.