Tackling invasive species a priority for UH faculty

The brown tree snake, small fire ant, Miconia and more threaten Hawaii’s biosecurity.

Invasive species have surreptitiously invaded our islands, wreaking havoc on our environment and economy. It is a serious problem that threatens native plants, animals and locally grown crops. Their impacts threaten the food security and resilience of our state.

Tackling the increasing number of invasive species is a priority for UH faculty. Fortunately, UH faculty members are already engaged in research and activities addressing many of these threats.

However, they are hampered by persistently inadequate government budget allocations, which further undermine our efforts to improve our state’s food security. Climate change will only exacerbate this funding problem by bringing even more invasive species to our shores.

Biosecurity experts testifying at a Legislative briefing meeting Jan. 26 noted that prevention efforts for the brown tree snake, Miconia, small fire ant and red imported fire ant, along with other initiatives in the state’s biosecurity plan, will cost an estimated $38 million.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture together typically receive less than 2% of the state’s operating budget.

Conclusion of the joint meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment and the House Committees on Energy and Environmental Protection, Agriculture and Food Systems, and Land and Water: Hawaii urgently needs to invest in biosecurity.

A Honolulu Civil Beat article on this crucial issue aptly said: “Take the University of Hawaii: It has lost 70 jobs within the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources over the course of the pandemic. Many of these tasks – including research – flow into strategies to increase biosecurity. Since then it has gained 21 positions.”

A small fire ant worker. (HDOA)

Read the full article here. It’s important to note that a university-wide hiring freeze during the pandemic hasn’t helped.

University of Hawaii Professional Assembly President David Duffy, a UH professor in the Department of Botany and a graduate professor of zoology, ecology, evolution and conservation biology, is well acquainted with the research’s meager funding. He directed the UH Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, now in the School of Life Sciences, for more than 20 years and helped establish and administer the Invasive Species Committees on all islands, which serve as the first line of defense against newly invasive species.

Hawaii urgently needs to invest in biosecurity.

The Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit also helped establish and manage the watershed partnerships on each island to provide safe drinking water supplies for Hawaii residents and businesses. In collaboration with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, Professor Duffy’s work also included sponsoring the development of a Hawaiian ant laboratory that provides expertise and research to prevent colonization of small fire ants.

“All of these groups depend on soft money from the state, the counties and the federal government,” he said. “That makes it difficult to plan and maintain operations from year to year.”

The Hawaii Invasive Species Council, established 20 years ago by the University of Hawaii and the state departments of Land and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Health, Transportation and Economy, Economic Development and Tourism, has designated February as Hawaii Invasive Species Awareness Month, to highlight the myths about invasive species affecting our islands.

We should also set this month to recognize and celebrate the dwindling army of UH faculty who are on the front lines fighting invasive species and trying to bolster our defenses with the limited staff they currently have. As we eat our papaya for breakfast, sip our Kona coffee, or proudly “buy local” at the farmer’s market, let’s say thank you to our UH faculty biosecurity heroes.