U.S. Weighs Spraying All of Hawaii to Attack Medfly

Times Staff Writer

The federal government, at the urging of California agriculture interests, is considering a far-reaching plan that includes the possible statewide spraying of Hawaii with the insecticide malathion to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, or Medfly, and two other kinds of fruit fly from the state.

The project, designed to prevent the flies from spreading to California and other agriculture centers on the mainland, has caused a tropical storm of protest to break over the islands, from the verdant valleys of Maui to the steamy streets of Honolulu.

Here, the proposal is viewed as a serious threat to the fragile ecology of Hawaii, as well as to the cisterns and other catchment systems that many people rely on for drinking water.

"It would change our lives dramatically," protests Masako Westcott, who grows tropical flowers with her husband near Haiku, on Maui, far from the conveniences of running water and electricity. "The thought of their spraying (malathion) in our water--and there are many birds that would be affected--it's horrifying."

Opponents say and the U.S. Agriculture Department agrees that the project would pose a risk to the unique and irreplaceable insects, birds and plants that have evolved here and only here.

"This project is so massive it jeopardizes the existence of a number of (beneficial) insects," contends Wayne Gagne, an entomologist with the Bishop Museum here. "A massive decline in non-targeted insects will have consequences up the biological chain."

And of the many native insects that exist on only one island in the world, he adds:

"You make any major change in their habitat, like this project, and these guys face extinction."

Such is the reaction blowing like the trade winds across the islands to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on the project. The report on eradicating the fruit flies here in order to stem their spread to the mainland sets out six possible courses of action. It candidly acknowledges that a statewide assault with malathion poses the biggest benefit for the mainland but the greatest threat to the islands.

When public hearings on the draft environmental report were held last month here and in Maui, the outcry was so great that the Department of Agriculture began considering even more alternatives to spraying malathion repeatedly over every Hawaiian island.

One possibility raised is the use of genetically engineered fruit flies with "lethal genes" that would cause them to die off. But waiting for such an advance would prolong the threat of infestations on the mainland.

California's Infestation

"We strongly support (spraying malathion)," said Rex Magee, associate director of the Department of Food and Agriculture in California, where it is widely believed, though not proven, that Hawaii was the source of California's Medfly infestation in 1980-82. "We spend in excess of $20 million a year to keep out and detect fruit flies.

"Most originate in Hawaii . . . only a few hours from us. They say in Hawaii you can't eradicate them and that it's environmentally harmful. We used malathion . . . and there were no problems."

Already California has agreed to contribute $500,000 for the construction of a federal facility in Hawaii to rear sterile fruit flies for use in eradication programs. For years, the state had also contributed to the operation of a temporary sterile-fly laboratory in Hawaii.

'Tri-Fly Complex'

The three fruit flies--the Medfly, the melon fly and the Oriental fruit fly--were accidentally introduced by man into Hawaii beginning about 1895. They have come to be known as the "tri-fly complex." For years, to keep them from reaching the mainland, exported fruit has been fumigated, tourists' luggage has been searched and freight has been inspected.

According to E.J. Stubbs of the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, plans to eradicate the fruit flies from Hawaii have been "discussed and cussed" for years. But with the California Medfly invasion, which took more than $100 million and repeated sprayings of malathion to protect state citrus crops, support for eradication gained new impetus.

Final approval to go ahead with program would be made by Congress, which would have to appropriate funds to carry out the spraying program, Stubbs said.

It is unclear what role the state of Hawaii could play in any decision to eradicate the flies, but a 1957 law passed by Congress gives the Agriculture Department the responsibility to prevent the spread of pests within the United States.

"We put pressure on Congress to provide funds for an environmental impact statement and to provide the methodology (for an eradication program)," said Magee of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "California put its muscle behind tri-fly eradication to get it done."

Congress responded with $250,000. A draft of the environmental impact statement--intended to weigh the advantages and environmental damages of major federal projects--was released for public reaction in November.

The document outlined six possible approaches, ranging from doing nothing to a simultaneous pesticidal assault on all three flies on all of the islands, the method preferred by Magee. The U.S. Agriculture Department, however, suggested an island-by-island assault--including aerial and ground spraying of insecticide to reduce fruit fly populations and then traps and sterile flies to eliminate them--beginning on the island of Kauai.

'Undesirable Effects'

But the environmental impact statement cautioned that "the widespread use of tri-fly eradication technology may produce undesirable effects. . . . The state of Hawaii is a unique assemblage of island ecosystems with some 50 species of threatened or endangered species occurring in the state."

"Also, there may be risks to beneficial predators and parasites, pollinators, fish, birds and other non-target organisms. These concerns must be recognized, and all potential consequences . . . must be carefully evaluated, balancing the risks against the benefits of the eradication effort."

The study estimated that it could take six years and perhaps $167.7 million to eradicate the three flies from Hawaii.

Critics of the effort say that the deep, steep valleys of Hawaii, littered with the fruit of guava, are a natural breeding ground for the flies, and eradication proposals are doomed to failure. The Hawaiian Entomological Society, calling eradication a "monumental task," says flatly that "no such grand eradication scheme has succeeded in the past."

"To eradicate, as they apparently did in California--that's not the same as trying to eradicate it here," said Hampton Carson, a professor of genetics and pioneer researcher in the evolution of native Hawaii insects.

Carson warns that uncounted native species could be devastated by malathion while the fruit flies live on.

Magee disagrees. "That's simply not true," he said in a telephone interview from Sacramento. "If they say it won't eradicate the fruit flies, how can there be eradication of (beneficial insects)? I agree there will be some effect on non-target species with spraying, but when you switch to sterile fly releases, the sterile fly is insect-specific."

At the public hearings on the draft environmental report, citizens with photocopies of their statements in hand came forward to protest the spraying of malathion on their gardens, in their water, and on the land they have come to revere.

"It was like a movie queue down at the Xerox," said William S. Merwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was one of 250 residents to attend the meeting.

"I object to having our water, or anybody else's, poisoned for the profit of some agribiz speculator in California, or some petrochemical company in Texas," Merwin said. "I object to having every living thing around me dosed for six years with poison for the sake of the income of citrus producers somewhere else or for chemical manufacturers. . . ."

Violence Hinted

Others who testified hinted that still others might resort to violence to prevent malathion spraying, or deliberately send Medflies to the mainland in retaliation.

But Stubbs of the U.S. Agriculture Department said the concern is thus far unwarranted, that no decision has been made to eradicate the fruit flies from Hawaii, let alone whether to do it with malathion. The concerns raised, Stubbs said, have prompted the Agriculture Department to look for additional, less environmentally harmful approaches.

He said the department had chosen the island-by-island spraying plan only to focus public comment and to seek reaction to such a plan. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Agriculture Department will eventually have to state a "preferred alternative" in its final environmental impact statement. Stubbs said that could even be a decision not to proceed with eradication of the flies.

The state's papaya industry, which would be the prime island beneficiary of fruit fly eradication, says it supports the program but "not at the expense of the general public and the environment." The sugar industry has opposed it for fear that malathion would kill off bugs that are beneficial to the sugar crop.

U.S. Rep. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaiian Democrat who sits on the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said he is "categorically opposed to the use of malathion spraying as a means of controlling the fruit fly."

Meanwhile, a fourth fruit fly, the Malaysian fruit fly, has now been discovered on the island, and Stubbs said, "There's a probability that fly would expand (on the islands) with the other three removed."

"A lot of federal money is spent (on fruit fly inspection) and it's useless," said California's Magee. "It's difficult to set up the kind of inspection program that will protect California. Sooner or later we're going to have to tighten down on inspections, and that's going to cause Hawaii a lot of problems. . . . The option is to isolate Hawaii."

Genetic Engineering

Carson, the geneticist, for one feels safer methods will ultimately be available. "I'm not saying it's not a problem," he said. "But we now have some possibility of genetically engineering, to engineer the self-destruction of the flies. Look, let's wait. It would be nice to be rid of these flies but we might be able to get a method that's environmentally clean."

Gagne cites the disappearance of one native bird from the island of Lanai after a malathion test program there in the 1970s. "Whether it's cause and effect or coincidence, we don't know," he said.

"It's the insecticide that's the basis for my opposition," Carson said. "There's no question (beneficial native insects) would be very seriously damaged and perhaps exterminated. In addition to those, there's a whole fauna in miniature in these forests, which have evolved entirely differently on each island. The destruction of the insects would be followed by a decline in native birds, many of them already on the endangered species list. Many of them feed on these insects. That ecosystem is . . . unique.

"To destroy that is to destroy the natural legacy of Hawaii. It ought to be preserved."

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