Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dying `Ōhi`a: Lots of research, perhaps some hope







Dead `ohi`a with live trees and uluhe.
Credit: DLNR
Lots of news organizations spread word that a variant of the Rapid `Ōhi`a Death fungus has been found on Kaua`i, but none told the larger story.

That story is the powerful effort that’s going on to save the tree that has been called the mother of the forest.

`Ōhi`a is really a remarkable part of the Hawaiian environment, growing in many environments from sea level to high mountains, and in many cases serving as the dominant canopy tree.

It feeds and houses insects. Those insects and the tree’s nectar feed birds. And it houses birds, both in its branches and in cavities in its trunk.

It is prominent in culture, common in legend, and it’s just plain gorgeous with its crimson and orange puffball flowers and widely varying leaf types. Buds can be reddish or orange or green, and shiny or covered with a frost of silver hairs.

“It is the foundation tree of our watershed,” said Bob Masuda, deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

As a community we despaired when there arrived a fungus, Ceratocystis lukuohia, which began killing trees by the thousands on Hawai`i Island. Many trees were infected and once infected, death was certain often in days to weeks. It was sometimes called `Ōhi`a Wilt, and sometimes more dramatically, Rapid `Ōhi`a Death.

It turns out that a small percentage of trees was also infected with a slower-developing related fungus, Ceratocystis huliohia. It could take months to years to kill a tree, often taking single branch systems before killing off the entire tree. 

That’s the one that has now been found on East Kaua`i. Not nearly as virulent as its spooky cousin, but still a problem for `ōhi`a. Foresters suggest it probably shouldn’t be called Rapid `Ōhi`a Death, because, well, it doesn’t progress so rapidly.

Both are examples of something called a vascular wilt—a fungus that clogs the tree’s ability to transfer water between roots and leaves


There are some interesting things about these diseases, including that they appear to have very different sources. The fast-acting one is most closely related to fungi in Latin America, while the slower one appears to be more closely related to Asian fungi.

And the slower-moving version may spread slowly enough that it was in the Hawaiian Islands first, but wasn’t recognized. There are lots of things that can kill `ōhi`a trees, lots of disease that can attack them—although none as aggressive as Ceratocystis lukuohia.

One of the big unanswered questions about both diseases is whether there is hope. Whether there are any examples of `ōhi`a trees that may be resistant—and thus could be used to repopulate the Hawaiian forest.

To help find that out, lots of research is underway, including aerial surveys on several islands to better understand the outbreak. Here’s one study on the aerial monitoring from the journal Remote Sensing

Pathologist Lisa Keith, of the USDA Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Service, said that researchers are growing seedlings of different varieties of `ōhi`a and infecting them with the fungus. So far, some are still surviving—perhaps a good sign, although they may just be heading downhill slower than others.

She and others are also working with different fungicides, which may not save an infected tree, but might keep a particularly valued tree alive longer. Others are working with other techniques to try to strengthen the trees so they can potentially survive infection.

It’s clear that humans are big carriers. If a tool like an ax, chain saw or machete cuts an infected tree, it can easily spread the disease if you cut into a second tree without disinfecting the tool. Any injury to the tree can be a highway for infection.

Scientists are studying the beetles that may be spreading the disease by boring into the trees.

And they’re trying to determine how effective the fungus is at being spread by wind.

And what if it’s not just those beetles, but other insects. Researchers have chunks of infected tree wood in netted containers, to watch what other insects might emerge over time.

If the disease is spread by wind, then perhaps you could limit the spread by cutting down a swath of trees downwind from an infected patch, to deny the fungus trees to spread to. Kind of like cutting a firebreak.  The state Division of Forestry and Wildlife is working on that technique.

Researchers are studying old photographs of the forest to try to determine what they can about disease in `ōhi`a over the years.

And scientists have developed quarantine measures to reduce the spread—like limiting the movement of infected wood.

The number of organizations working on this issue is impressive. It includes the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, The Nature Conservancy, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaiʻi Association of Watershed Partnerships, Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, the Big Island, Maui, Molokai, O'ahu and Kaua'i Invasive Species Committees, USFS Region 5 State and Private Forestry, USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, Carnegie Airborne Observatory,  Hawai'i Invasive Species Council and Hawai`i Department of Agriculture -Plant Quarantine Branch.


A sign of hope is that not every tree in a diseased stand dies. But it’s not yet clear whether that’s because surviving trees might be resistant to the disease, or that they simply haven’t been infected yet.

That said, the `ōhi`a is so important to the Hawaiian environment that researchers and foresters hope to be able to identify resistant trees.

If they can find them, then the daunting task will be a massive statewide effort to replant these seminal trees throughout the Hawaiian forest.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018


Friday, March 23, 2018

Vampire Mice II: Mice changing diet, growing bigger as they attack giant seabirds


 Laysan albatross with mouse injury. Credit: USFWS.
Like characters in some horror movie, house mice are moving up the food chain and getting bigger.

They’re feeding on chicks and now adult seabirds, leaving hundreds of three-foot-tall albatrosses bleeding from their necks, heads and backs, like victims in a vampire flick.


In one case, they are also changing in size—nearly doubling in mass on one Atlantic island where they aggressively eat seabird chicks.
The lowly mouse, Mus musculus, has always been an omnivore, but they’ve never had the reputation of rats as attack rodents. That is changing on islands around the world.

The latest spooky change in their level of aggression came on  a remote Hawaiian Island: Sand Island at Midway Atoll at the remote western end of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which takes up all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and considerable square mileage of the surrounding waters.

On Midway, mice are biting the necks of adult Laysan albatross, chewing down skin and fat and muscle, and drinking blood.  Hundreds of the big birds have been found dead, and more hundreds of abandoned nests suggest other injured parent birds may have died at sea.

Night video of the nesting areas show the tiny gray mice climbing the backs and necks of the albatrosses, repeatedly sipping at gaping wounds they have chewed into the birds’ bodies.

Mice going after big adult birds at Midway started out of the blue in 2015, and this was new. This was another step, something not seen before anywhere. Wildlife officials are now studying ways to wipe out the mouse population, before the predation gets worse.

We wrote about this at Raising Islands here

Efforts to control predation on important seabird nesting islands has previously mainly focused on rats—mainly Pacific rats and black rats, which are also known as roof rats and ship rats. But in the past two decades, mice have stepped up as serious predators of seabirds.

Mice have been caught attacking soft chicks and eggs on bird nesting islands for some time. Here is a Live Science piece on attacks at other islands. 

On Gough Island in the South Atlantic, game cameras recorded swarms of mice attacking nestlings of Tristan albatross (Diomedia dabbenena,) great puffins (Puffinus gravis) and Atlantic petrel (Pterodoma incerta.)

“One video showed up to 10 mice mauling an albatross chick and eating from three open wounds on its body,” wrote Live Science writer Jeanna Byer in 2007.
Puffins and petrels are smaller seabirds, the size of mynah birds or pigeons. Albatrosses, which can be three feet tall with wingspans of six to 11 feet, are huge.  A mouse standing up might reach four inches in height. In climbing an albatross, they are climbing a bird nine times taller than they are.
The authors of a 2012 scientific paper in Animal Conservation on that situation wrote: “mice cannot be ignored as a potential threat to island fauna, and island restoration and management plans should routinely include eradication of introduced mice.” 

Injured albatross at Midway in colony. Credit; USFWS.
A 2016 piece in Smithsonian suggests that mice, fed on a rich diet of seabird flesh, are actually changing in size—getting huge. 

They are nearly twice the weight of standard house mice. The standard house mouse is tiny, weighing only about 16 to 25 grams. On Gough, the average mouse runs more than 35 grams.

“They’re the largest and heaviest mice anywhere in the world,” said Richard Cuthbert of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Cuthbert was the lead author of a 2016  Journal of Mammalogy  article that suggested that the bird diet is a primary cause of the change in mouse size. 

Of course it is not only adult birds that mice attack when they get established on islands. 

Wildlife officials in New Zealand have noted mice killing not only seabird chicks but native lizards, seedlings and bird eggs. New Zealand has removed rats and mice from several offshore islands.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Vampire mice killing hundreds of Laysan albatross on Hawaiian island of Midway


Bloodied albatross. USFWS photo.
The mysterious vampire mice of Midway Atoll have left hundreds of adult Laysan albatross dead, their necks torn open in garish bloody wounds.

These mice are doing something no mice anywhere else in the world are known to do.

Late at night, they climb the necks of nesting seabirds and chew through the skin, apparently feeding on the birds’ blood, skin, fat and muscle.
The albatross’ commitment to protecting their eggs is so strong that they will shake their heads, but will not leave the nests even with a predatory rodent chewing on them.

And the problem has grown since it was first spotted in 2015.

Wildlife officials assess injured Laysan albatross. Credit: USFWS
“It is horribly destructive what they do to those birds,” said Matt Brown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service superintendent for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which includes Midway.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with a number of agencies and now hopes to eradicate the mice, which are an alien species to Midway. Among the 10 major atolls, reefs and islets of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, mice only occur on Sand Island, one of the three specks of dry land within Midway Atoll.

The mice have been here at least since World War II, but the new vampirish behavior is both new to Midway and apparently new to science. Mice are known to take eggs and nestlings of seabirds elsewhere, but only on Midway do they attack large adult birds.

“This isn’t a behavior that has been observed before, although rodents have been responsible for a number of seabird extinctions and extirpations on islands,” said Megan Nagel, public affairs officer for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu.
A Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet quoted Midway Atoll Refuge manager Bob Peyton: “The Service is working against the clock to determine how many birds have been attacked, what the rate of spread is, and how to stop the attacks. Albatrosses lay only one egg a season.” 

The proposal they’ve come up with is to try to eradicate the mice. New Zealand just completed a successful five-year effort to remove mice from the Antipodes Islands, where they were feeding on chicks and eggs of seabirds, apparently including the Wandering Albatross, whose 10 to 11-foot wingspan makes it one of the biggest of birds. 

The Midway approach will be similar to the one used at the Antipodes: a helicopter drop of toxic bait pellets during a period when the nesting seabird population is at its lowest.  That’s also similar to the technique that has been used to remove mice from more than 80 other islands and to remove rats from more than 400 islands around the world.

In Hawai`i it’s much like the system that was used to eradicate Pacific rats from Mokapu Island off Molokai and black rats from Mokoli`i off O`ahu, and which has been used to control rats at Lehua Island off Ni`ihau, a process that is still underway.
Rats were eradicated from Midway’s three islets in 1996.

The environmental assessment for the Midway mouse effort, under the name Midway Seabird Protection Project, describes the issues and the proposed solution. The public comment for the environmental assessment is open through April 20.

The helicopter would achieve a uniform islandwide distribution of specially designed bait pellets that contain the anticoagulant Brodifacoum. Some hand distribution will be employed in sensitive areas such as near the shore. The work would be done in the summer of 2019, during a period when seabirds are comparatively scarce on the island, and when dry weather limits mouse food supplies—making the grain-based bait pellets more appealing.

There are a number of reasons to use a helicopter, including assuring an even bait distribution but also foot traffic in many areas would collapse many of the thousands of nesting burrows of Bonin Petrels, which recovered strongly after rats were removed.

Similar eradication efforts on other islands have usually but not always been successful. In recent years, the success rate has gone up with improvements in technique. The environmental assessment reviews alternative approaches, and looks at the option of doing nothing at all.  The Brodifacoum bait delivered by helicopter at the right time of year, in specific amounts over time, as described in the proposal, is viewed as the best alternative.

The project is estimated to cost $3.5 million. It is not yet clear the source of that money. Many previous eradications have been funded through a combination of government funds, grants from foundations, and money from private institutions like conservation groups.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would be the lead operational agency, with technical support and assistance from Island Conservation and the Midway Restoration Partnership Group. This is a collaboration of the Fish and Wildlife Serfvice and Island Conservation as well as American Bird Conservancy, the National Wildlife Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, U.S Geological Survey and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018
What's at risk :Midway albatross colony. Credit: USFWS.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Massive pesticide testing confirms: Hawai`i Surface Waters "Meet State & Federal Water Quality Standards"


Ground zero has somehow slipped away. There is no evidence of widespread pesticide contamination in Hawai`i’s surface waters, according to a thorough federal study of water resources on two islands.
That confirms similar results in separate tests from 2014 and 2016.

It would seem that HAPA, SHAKA, the Center or Food Safety can fold up their tents and go home. Their work is done. If the claims of rampant agricultural pesticide misuse were ever true, they are not true now.

The U.S. Geological Survey conducted 7,200 water tests in 2016 and 2017—one of the broadest scientific investigations ever into allegations of pesticide misuse in the Hawaiian Islands. There were 12 surface water test sites on Kaua`i and 19 on O`ahu.

Here is the state Department of Agriculture public release on USGS testing of water samples at 31 sites on Oahu and Kaua`i, for 225 different pesticides. 

“The sites included streams, ditches, canals, and a wetland– and were near or downstream of agricultural areas, developed areas, or both,” the study said.  Here is the study itself

The short version: The laboratory tests were able to detect pesticides, but all at levels below federally and state levels of concern.

Bizarrely, while the last decade of allegations of pesticide misuse have gained widespread publicity across the state, the proof that those claims were unfounded has slipped almost entirely under the radar.  

The state’s news media allocated pages upon pages of newsprint and web content to pesticide contamination allegations, but almost nothing to the actual scientific proof that these claims were were overblown.
The Garden Island newspaper on Kaua`i, dismissed the study in a brief (9 paragraph) story.  Honolulu-based media have had nothing to date. 

The new USGS study is now being repeated on O`ahu and Kaua`i, and is also being expanded to Maui and Hawai`i counties.

“This multi-year surface water study goes a long way towards assuring the citizenry of Hawaii that pesticides are continuing to be used properly,” said Scott Enright, chair of the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture.

The surface water study is not an outlier. It confirms the conclusions of several previous studies.

It supports information by a groundwater study by an independent California laboratory for the Kaua`i Department of Water Supply in 2016, which found no pesticide levels of concern in groundwater from several Kaua`i agricultural sites. Here is the RaisingIslands coverage of that study. 

That study confirms annual testing by the island’s Water Department of all its drinking water sources. Those tests can be seen here

A statewide surface water testing effort in 2014 had results along the same lines. Here is Honolulu Civil Beat’s piece on that statewide program, which found that most pesticide concerns were in urban streams, and not in agricultural areas. 

As noted above, the new USGS study did not fail to find pesticides, but where it found them they were at exceedingly low levels. Here are some of the notable findings, from the state Department of Agriculture release, including what is being done about those pesticides:

“Chlorpyrifos was detected in two Honouliuli stream samples collected during the same high-flow storm event. The highest concentration of 23.3 ng/l is below the state water quality standard of 83 ng/l and the strictest acute benchmark of 50 ng/l for the protection of freshwater invertebrates. HDOA is currently in the process of restricting the use of chlorpyrifos by reclassifying it to a restricted-use pesticide (RUP) which will allow its use by only state-certified applicators. The proposed restrictions will mirror what California has done and includes required buffer zone. These rules are anticipated to be finalized by this summer.

“Concentrations of flubendiamide in high-flow samples collected at two sites on Oahu exceeded the lowest Federal aquatic-life benchmark. Flubendiamide is an insecticide that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the process of cancelling its use due to the risk to aquatic invertebrates and aquatic environments.

“Atrazine, an herbicide and established groundwater contaminant, and an RUP was detected in low-flow samples at three sites, at concentrations more than 100 times lower than the EPA maximum contaminant level for drinking water and the strictest aquatic life benchmarks. This represents a significant drop compared to the 75 percent detection rate in a 2013-14 study. The decline likely reflects the decrease in current atrazine applications and sales statewide after 2015, during the time that saw the closure of a large sugarcane plantation.

“Bromacil is an herbicide and established groundwater contaminant used almost exclusively on pineapple in Hawaii. Bromocil was detected in two areas, one of which is known to have grown pineapple.”

All but one of the samples identified at least one pesticide compound. A total of 61 different pesticides were identified across the two islands. The most commonly identified pesticide was Atrazine—either directly or from a compound that Atrazine degrades into.

Atrazine is a long-lived herbicide that was commonly used in the sugar industry, but is still used to control broadleaf weeds in agriculture today. It is the agricultural chemical most widely detected in water samples across the nation.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Aluminum tariffs, hotel taxes, electric cars and the value of complexity

Targeted taxes and added regulations always have unintended consequences.

In Hawai`i, when we pile taxes onto hotel rooms, it encourages alternative accommodations that may be able to avoid the tax—thus damaging the hotel industry.

When we regulate the heck out of taxis, it opens the door for Uber and Lyft.

Transportation fuel taxes provide an inadvertent subsidy to electric vehicles. Discussions of fixing that with a mileage tax will punish lower-income people who are forced to live where housing prices are cheaper, but who have to commute longer distances.

When President Trump announced new steel and aluminum tariffs, at first blush it seems sound. If these metals from foreign producers pay a big tax to get into the U.S., then that improves the competitiveness of metals from American producers.

But the unintended consequences are many.

Nearly a year ago, the firm NERA Economic Consulting looked into aluminum tariffs and their impact. They used an economic model from another firm, Regional Economic Models Inc. (REMI).

Among the conclusions: the higher prices from across-the-board tariffs would cost more jobs to the larger economy than they would add to the aluminum industry; and the tariffs would harm the parts of the manufacturing economy that rely on aluminum.

The study suggested that tariffs could be tweaked to actually be productive to the local economy, by targeting semi-finished aluminum products.

But, of course, that’s not what President Trump has proposed.

Tariffs and taxes are complicated. They often don’t produce the results intended.

One of the most concerning impacts of the metals tariffs is that while they may be intended to target our economic competitors, they more directly target our friends.

China is a big aluminum producer, and it has severely cut into our aluminum exports. But our biggest source of aluminum is Canada. Sixty percent of the product comes from our northern neighbor.

So it seems that an aluminum tariff could very well not harm China, but further damage Canada, which is already reeling from China’s growing exports.

Unintended consequences.

Which is a statement about complexity. Complexity breeds suspicion and misunderstanding. But complexity is almost always unavoidable in tax and tariff policy. Difficult subjects need smart people and careful consideration.

Simple solutions can sometimes be worse than no solution at all.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2018