Environmental Issues of Invasive Species in Hawaii

Kokua Hawaii: environmental issues of invasive species

Hawaii is one of the most diverse places on our Earth. In Hawaii temperatures and conditions allow for year round growing season. There has been an uprising in forward thought to become more self-sufficient and independent. Schools are teaching gardening. There are seminars on caring for the land and sea. There are seminars on gardening, and saving our honey bees. Everywhere you look it seems people are trying to become educated about what matters to us most. They are learning and hopefully putting into practice what they learn.

For us, it is a delicate balance. Living 2000 miles from the nearest land mass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean requires that we kokua, care for and protect, our land and oceans. Our islands are delicate ecosystems filled with endemic and native plants and animals. Many of the endemic species are found only in Hawaii. From the first footfalls of the first Hawaiians, plants and animals have been brought here. There were no issues then of invasive species. There were no issues of polluted waters. And no one was asking, “What happens when the boats stop coming?” The first people did not just live from the land and oceans, they lived for it. They kept the delicate balance any garden needs and deserves. They did not have a grocery store on the corner, or a pharmacy down town. They did not have ready made clothing to buy, or excessive packaging. The first Hawaiians collected their food, their pharmaceuticals, and made their clothing, housing, and packaging such as baskets, from forest and sea. While they did this they gave great respect to all that they were given, grateful for the life it gave.

What a different world it is today. A place so overflowing with bountiful fruits, vegetables, and renewable resources going to waste because it is easier to drop by the local Safeway or the nearest Wal-Mart to purchase products we believe we need from some far off port across the vast ocean. And what do those ships bring? They bring building supplies, food, paper products, plants, clothing, Christmas trees, gas, oil, and tons of plastic products and packaging. All of this we buy, and into the rubbish is stuffed the packaging to be dumped at the nearest transfer station. That is if we are not to lazy to travel that far, instead dumping it on the side of the road or in a neighbor’s tree.

All the while our aina, our land, suffers. The fruiting trees continue to fruit, but it is not picked. There is not a need for it when you can buy the same or different food from the store. The fruit falls to the ground and new plants sprout. Suddenly there is an over abundance of plants. They seem to be everywhere, causing tangled jungle so dense it is near impossible to go through. They drain the nutrients from the rich soil, and choke out our precious endemic forests. The plants become weak thus making them less resistant to parasites and disease. Now, the fruits are deemed unsafe for shipping. Quarantine signs rise up warning people not to remove fruit or trees and spread that which plagues. We look in surprise at this over population of plants and animals, and call them invasive species.

Now that we have invasive species we go on an eradication effort to rid ourselves of the perceived pest. In Hawaii we know just what to do. We have learned so well from past experience. Take for example how we dealt with the rat problem. We aloud the mongoose to be brought in. That would surely take care of it. But, wait a minute… rats are nocturnal, and mongoose are day time creatures with a taste for eggs, and young birds. Now we still have rats and the mongoose is an invasive species. Our endemic goose, the Nene, is endangered as the mongoose attacks their young and their eggs. For people who keep chickens, ducks, or other birds they too suffer. Many people set traps for the mongoose, as they tire of loosing eggs and chicks. Once caught, it is up to the trapper to figure out how to kill the mongoose. It is illegal to trap and release a mongoose in Hawaii.

Yet we still ask, “Oh my, what shale we do with this invader?” And we still listen to the voice of authority that tells us, “Why, we will introduce a new species that is an enemy of the invader.” or “We will poison the invader.” They assure us that it will all be fine. They have tested these new species. No immediate harm will befall anything we wish unharmed. Some of our latest issues are that of the waiawi, (strawberry guava); the red mangroves; the stinging nettle caterpillar, and the coqui frog.

The strawberry guava, or waiawi as it is called in Hawaii, is a member of the Myrtle family. There are more than 3000 species of plants in this family. Our endemic Ohia, as well as many other trees and shrubs on the island, are related to the strawberry guava. Many of these plants produce healthy and tasty fruits. The problem with the strawberry guava is how quickly it forms dense thickets. The fruit is a favorite of animals such as pigs, chickens and other birds. They thus spread the seeds plentifully. As if it were not bad enough that this tree is feeding feral animals (that are now considered invasive as well) it is said the waiawi is choking out the Ohia forests.

Now rather than utilizing these trees, and in doing so controlling their wild population, we are told “No. No need for that. We will simply introduce a scale insect that only likes strawberry guava. This little insect will destroy the trees it colonizes. Isn’t it wonderful? Oh, and don’t worry, it wont attack your precious Ohia, your guava orchards, your mountain apples, or anything else the strawberry guava is related to; at least, not for a very long time.” Maybe so. We won’t be around to see what happens but our children, and grandchildren and great grandchildren will be.

Instead of releasing an insect that has never been found here and potentially putting other endemic, native, and profit crop fruit trees at risk, we should come up with a plan of action that makes the trees and fruit valuable to us and the world. The wood of the waiawi is smooth, dense, and extremely strong. Many already use it in wood working projects. Other uses could be flooring, cabinetry, and trim. This is especially true of the large trees. Dried wood is often used for barbequing and smoking meat. The smoky flavor from the waiawi is delicately sweet. The fruit has many uses as well. Fruits from the red strawberry guava are sweet and tart. . Yellow fruiting trees have their own distinct flavor, reminiscent of lemons, and fruits from the orange strawberry guava are sweeter than the red. All of these fruits are delicious alone, juiced, or used in desert recipes. They make wonderful jams, jellies, syrups, and juices. The little fruits are great for use as an inexpensive facial, exfoliating, toning and tightening the skin. Simply break open a small fruit, and rub the pulp all over your face. Allow this to dry and rinse. Do take care not to get any in your eyes, as it will burn. And, as always, if you have never tried the fruit before be sure to do a small skin test on your arm to be sure you are not allergic.

The waiawi gives us food, building material, and has been known for its medicinal qualities; why would we want to eradicate this very special tree? Yes, we must keep it under control. As any gardeners knows even beneficial plants left alone may take over the entire garden. Some gardeners may decide they do not like certain plant and rid their garden of it; others may tend the same plant allowing it to grow while keeping it under control. This is our garden, we must all tend it. Do what is right for your part, but respect the rest.

The red mangroves are being sprayed with poison because they are considered invasive. Now puffer fish wash upon the shores dead. Any correlation? These are the same waters we allow our keiki to play. Will they become ill from swimming in poisoned water? Mangroves have displaced Hawaiian fish habitats making it more like Florida than Hawaii. In other places on the islands eradication efforts have involved physically removing the plants. It’s not a fast answer to the problem and it certainly is not easy, yet it would seem the logical choice of action when considering poisons to do the job.

Many plants considered pests have vast beneficial qualities. The red mangrove is no exception. Around the world this plant is known for its uses. It is used for building, railroad ties, charcoal, and tannin for dye. The Polynesians use mangrove to make black dye for tapa cloth. Red mangrove has been used for livestock feed, tea, insect repellant, and medicinal uses. So, before we completely form our opinion about this plant, or any other, let’s learn about it more.

If you must kill a plant there are other things you can try before poisoning your environment. White vinegar works well on killing many weeds. Douse the weed, leaves and the ground near the base of the plant. You may have to do this a couple of times to completely rid your self of the plant. The only draw back is that you need to take care not to spray any plants you want to keep. The best way to rid your self of weeds is still the old fashioned manual removal. Get the roots out of the ground, try to do weeding before the plant flowers and seeds, and take care not to spread any seeds. It takes more time, and is much more physical, but this can be a good thing. We could all use a little more exercise these days.

The stinging nettle caterpillar is an extremely irritating pest that has no known enemy in Hawaii aside from man. Many people are very allergic to their stings and may require a hospital visit should they accidentally brush against one. But, a tiny little wasp is to be introduced that will lay its eggs inside the caterpillar. The wasp larva will eat the caterpillar alive and change into new wasps in search of their next victim. Sounds great, but will these wasps also attack other caterpillars of wanted and needed species?

The coqui frog is a tropical tree frog that has done extremely well here in the islands. Its shrill chirp goes on and on all night, and can become almost deafening. The nights are no longer quiet. Mostly it is people this little frog annoys, but there is the claim that they may eat more than their fair share of insects and that would cause troubles for other animals that rely on the insect population. Have you noticed a decrease in the mosquito population? Well, we must insure the bug eaters we do want here have plenty to eat so; someone came up with the idea to spray the coqui habitat with a 16% solution of citric acid. This kills the frogs and their eggs. It is considered safe for the environment. However care should be taken when spraying plants as it may damage or kill some. If citric acid kills coquis’ and may harm plants, what then is it doing to other amphibians, reptiles, and plants that accidentally come in contact with it? There are better ways to deal with them. Trapping them and then killing them is one way to deal with them. Chickens love them, but there we go again, feeding an unwanted animal. Rather, it is suggested that the captured creatures be put in baggies and have soapy, boiling water poured over them, or pour citric acid over them. Does this seem cruel and wasteful?

The experts claim to know how to deal with these problems. Problems those centuries of human contact have caused. Do they truly expecting us to believe them? They convince so many that they are right. Is it right to introduce a new species to control another, even when that new introduction could have dire consequences on our land, our animals, and us down the road? Is it right to poison plant and animal because we are told that is what needs to be done, with little or no regard for the other plants, animals or humans it may effect? Do they really have our best interest at heart?

Whether they have our best interest in mind or not, we need to listen. They are the experts. They are studying the ecosystems and making the decisions about our world. There are many issues we would never notice if they did not enlighten us. Yet, this does not mean we should completely turn our world over, quite the opposite is true. Instead we need to listen, learn, research, and communicate our thoughts. No one has the answers right now. But if we work together we may find a solution to our troubles. It will take all of us to change.

We realize we need to change our ways. We realize that we need to stop over indulging for the sake of our own comforts if there is to be anything beautiful left of our world for future generations. Haven’t we learned that there is no easy way to deal with the damage already done? It will take hard, back breaking work, by today’s standards. We can not leave it up to our children to solve the issues. It is time to stop being lazy and work toward a brighter future for us all and all the generations that will come after. It is up to us to set new standards and new goals for our children to learn from. How are they to take care of problems as adults if they are not given the tools to do so now? How are they to think for themselves when they see us looking for answers outside of ourselves? It is time for us to become informed and make diplomatic decisions regarding the future of our earth and our children. There are natural ways of dealing with the problems of invasive species. There are ways that do not require the introduction of a new, to be invasive creature, or the poisoning of our lands and oceans to rid ourselves of one species. It is up to us to discover those ways and share our finding with those that will listen. We have minds, let us use them; we have speech, let us be heard.

It is time for us to kokua Hawaii! We need to protect and care for our ocean and land and all that depend upon it. This garden is all of ours. Would you want someone coming into your garden and pulling up your plants, because they said it was a weed? Would you search the world for an insect to release on your neighbors garden because you did not like their plants? So, why are we allowing someone else to come in and do this to our garden? We are capable of finding solutions to any of our problems, and maybe if we get out there and sweat a little bit we will find our garden and ourselves a little healthier. We may also find we’re a little more in tune with our world.