In April 2005, the owner of a nursery in Waimanalo noticed a fungus he did not recognize on an `ohi`a. A month later, a rose apple tree above Maunawili was heavily infested with a similar rust. Within six months, the rust had spread to all of the main Hawaiian islands, showing up on guavas, rose apples, and even the endangered nioi (Eugenia koolauensis and E. reinwardtiana).
It took a bit longer than that – until November 2005 – for scientists at the University of Hawai`i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to nail down an identification: Puccinia psidii Winter, a rust-causing fungus affecting plants in the myrtle family. Native to Central and South America, the rust was thought to have been brought to Hawai`i in shipments of foliage from Florida or a foreign country in the neotropics.
In 2007, the state Department of Agriculture imposed a one-year emergency rule prohibiting the importation of plants in the myrtle family – which includes the `ohi`a, ubiquitous in Hawaiian forests – from areas known to have the rust. Although `ohi`a did not appear to be ravaged by the strain of rust that had already landed here, the rule was intended to keep out other strains that might be far more damaging.
Since that emergency rule expired, the state has had no regulation prohibiting the import of Myrtaceae, including some plants (myrtle, waxflower, eucalyptus) whose foliage is common in cut-flower arrangements.
Now, however, the Department of Agriculture has prepared a draft rule that would make permanent the ban on Myrtaceae. Carol Okada, with the DOA’s Plant Quarantine division, said that the emergency rule was imposed “without the requisite rule-making requirements. It didn’t go to experts, didn’t go to the public.” But with the support of years of research, the DOA is ready to take the draft permanent rule – to be known as Subchapter 18 – out to public hearings.
Most of the DOA’s rules are to protect important agricultural industries, such as sugar, pineapple, and coffee, Okada said. “We have just one forest rule, to protect pine. This new rule will be the first to protect native forests.”
The draft rule differs in another key respect from previous DOA plant quarantine rules, she went on to say. “Normally, rulemaking is either to prevent a pest or protect a plant. We want in this case not just to prevent the fungus from coming in, but to protect `ohi`a.” The rule would allow the DOA to take immediate action to protect `ohi`a from the Puccinia rust or any other pathogen.
“Whether the rust is there or not, we take the plant, or plant part, or seed,” she said. “The only exception is dried, non-living plant materials or tissue-cultured plants grown in sterile media, or by permit.” To import by permit, however, is subject to a year in quarantine: “If you bring in cut foliage or anything in the myrtle family, we’re taking it for a year. Seeds or plant crops will also go into quarantine.”
Finally, the draft rule is novel in that it is the first regulation based on strain differences, Okada said. “All other rules regulate species not known to occur in Hawai`i,” a convention that appears in the plant regulations of the United States government and which is also a key element in international trade. “All countries agree that if you have a species or pathogen present, you can’t regulate that. So this is one of the first things we’re bucking. …. This is the first test of bucking federal pre-emption.”
When asked whether the DOA anticipated trouble over this aspect of the new rule, Okada said that the department was “working on getting all documentation in place.” Christy Martin, of CGAPS (Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species), who was in the audience, elaborated on the subject, saying Hawai`i representatives had met with a regulator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The regulator, Martin said, indicated that the state rule would give the USDA a basis for promulgating a similar federal rule. “So for the first time, we’ll be working on trying to get the federal system to help us on this problem.”
At the moment, Okada said, the Department of Agriculture was promoting a “buy local” campaign for vendors of cut flowers. “Most flowers in the markets are of foreign origin… When people buy flowers, they’re not looking for locally grown stuff. If you buy from Safeway or other stores, you’re buying bouquets made from things grown in Brazil, Columbia, and other countries…. So when you go to a store to buy flowers, are you going to be buying something cheap, or something to protect our forests?”
The DOA is also “opening a dialogue with florists and importers,” while the University of Hawai`i Hawai`i Economic Research Organization has undertaken an economic analysis of the rule, especially as it could affect florists and nurseries.
Christopher Wada of HERO summarized the group’s work to date. A survey of 205 florists and 158 nurseries found that, among florists, only about 20 percent carry products that would be prohibited under the rule. (On Kaua`i, the figure was just 6 percent.) At Costco, no Myrtaceae was in any floral arrangement, since the buyer still believed the 2007 rule was in effect, Wada noted. Safeway reported it ceased using Myrtaceae in 2007 and never went back, using substitute “filler” foliage. A “major florist” on O`ahu reported that Myrtaceae make up less than 1 percent of its sales, Wada said.
Wada said the group conducted a more detailed survey of forest nurseries, talking to about 10. “Four said they do import non-seed material,” but overall, nurseries saw the benefit in the quarantine rule, he said. “The cost of a successful invasion would be high… In 2007, a native nursery experienced an 8- to 10-percent mortality rate for 17,000 `ohi`a seedlings and young saplings, even with monthly treatment of a Puccinia-specific fungicide.” Plantations in Brazil, he added, report infection rates of 20 to 30 percent.
The value of protecting Hawai`i’s watersheds by keeping out the rust “is expected to be substantial,” Wada said. Estimates of the current value of the Ko`olau watershed of O`ahu (where `ohi`a is the principal component) range from $4 billion to $14 billion, he noted. “If a virulent strain of the rust were to reduce that by as little as one percent, the potential loss would be huge — $70 million, possibly even more.”
Okada said that the DOA was hopeful the new rule would be in place by December.
Volume 22, Number 3 — September 2011