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Continuing to Protect Hawaii from Invasive Pests

May 22, 2020


A plant quarantine inspector’s job doesn’t stop because of a pandemic. Invasive species still pose significant threats to agriculture daily, and as one of the most isolated island chains in the world, Hawaii is highly vulnerable. Nearly 90 percent of the food in the state is imported, and agricultural inspectors make sure what’s coming into Hawaii is safe for all residents and visitors.

Ongoing inspections

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s critical services of plant quarantine inspections have continued like clockwork at the airports and harbors. “Being a plant quarantine inspector means I am on the frontline, defending the state against any harmful invaders,” said Plant Quarantine Inspector Techie Lancaster. “Whether it’s an animal, plant, disease or other pest, I have the ability to stop it from causing any real agricultural, economic or ecological damage to our beautiful state.”

Fortunately, the worldwide pandemic has not disrupted the shipment of food and necessary supplies to Hawaii, keeping the inspectors busy with inspections of air and ocean freight containers. The motto of the state’s Plant Quarantine Branch is “Inspect to Protect” and that’s what Lancaster and other plant quarantine inspectors continue to do, protecting us and the environment from pesky little fire ants, coqui frogs, coconut rhinoceros beetles and more.

“Since COVID-19, inspections seem more tedious and somewhat stressful in terms of cleaning and being more aware of your surroundings,” Lancaster said. “It also takes a little longer because of the extra procedures added, but it’s all worth the effort. Everyone is more conscientious of social distancing and being more hygienic in everything we do.”

As the state looks to cut its budget, it is critical public services like plant quarantine inspections that can’t afford to be reduced. Citing the reduction in force that occurred in 2009 where half of the plant quarantine inspector positions were eliminated, Lancaster said any cuts now would negatively affect the food supply here. “As it is now, we are busy with daily inspections, pest calls and other inspections around the island,” she said. “With limited manpower there would be a significant delay in inspections, and many of the importers would have to wait. They wouldn’t be able to get their produce on time, which means the public won’t get their produce either.”

Keeping Hawaii safe

At the airports, Lancaster and her fellow inspectors remain vigilant despite fewer passengers coming to the state due to Hawaii’s safer-at-home mandate and strict travel restrictions requiring all residents and visitors traveling between any of the islands to self-quarantine for 14 days. In addition to regulating the entry of and inspecting agricultural products such as produce, plants, fish and animals that arrive in the state through commercial air carrier cargo and passenger baggage, they inspect parcel carriers like FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service as well as private, military and commercial aircraft originating from areas known to have the destructive brown tree snake and other foreign hitchhikers.

“These items are thoroughly inspected to ensure compliance with state regulations and to ensure that no invasive species are introduced accidentally or intentionally,” Lancaster said. “Many people don't realize how much of an impact an imported or smuggled animal can have on Hawaii’s native animals and plants, not to mention the overall environment and our health.” She recalled one interesting interception of an airline cargo. “I was inspecting fish and along with it was a sting ray. It’s a prohibited animal so it was confiscated. It is a beautiful animal with round spots, but it’s a danger to humans with its venom, and it has a potential to threaten our precious environment and fauna if released.”

Although there has been a significant drop in travelers to the islands because of COVID-19, Lancaster pointed out the continued importance of passengers arriving in Hawaii from the U.S. mainland to complete, as required by state law, the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) Plants and Animals Declaration Form and declare any produce, plants, animals, insects, soil or microorganisms in their possession and baggage. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture handles processing of all agricultural goods entering Hawaii from foreign countries, with HDOA helping to inspect certain plants and produce the state regulates.)

When she’s not at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Lancaster is at the Sand Island Plant Inspection Office, primarily inspecting agricultural related commodities that arrive in container ships through Matson and Pasha and move interisland through Young Brothers. Additionally, she and other inspectors continue to inspect and certify plant nurseries on Oahu so they can export their plants to other states. They rapidly respond to pest calls of snakes and other exotic animals, conduct investigations and site inspections, inspect interisland shipment of plants and animals, and check fruits, vegetables and cut flowers at Costco, Safeway and Foodland warehouses, produce companies and other stores.

Taking precautions

Lancaster’s work has not lessened with the coronavirus crisis. As essential workers, “we still perform all of our duties,” she said. To decrease interaction with the public, agricultural inspections for export and interisland shipments are done either outside of the plant inspection office building or inside while the public remains outside, and at the airport office individuals must leave their items and pick them up after inspection. Processing of the state plant and animal declaration forms is done a day after arrival to assist with the 14-day passenger quarantine. “We are still present at the baggage claims for surveillance and to answer questions from passengers,” Lancaster said.

“COVID-19 is always in the back of my mind, and I do worry about others being careless and not taking safety precautions seriously,” she added. “There is still possible exposure, but washing our hands, sanitizing, wearing a mask, six feet distancing and some teleworking help mitigate our exposure. We are provided cleaning supplies, disposable gloves and cloth masks, and we supplement by making our own masks. We diligently clean high touch areas including office supplies, computers, phones and common work areas. We still do walk-in inspections at the airport of plants, animals and insects but require the public to remain outside while we do the inspection and paperwork inside.”

The diversity and unpredictability of her work is what keeps Lancaster going even during a global health crisis. “The great part of this job is you never know what may happen,” she said. “During any inspection, you may find an insect or disease that is not known to occur in Hawaii. Or at any given moment you may get a call through the pest hotline and soon find yourself hiking up a mountain looking for a snake or crawling through an attic looking for a bat. I like knowing I can make a difference in preserving the natural beauty of Hawaii for future generations to enjoy.”

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