'Second invasion' threatens nurseries
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
State Sen. Clayton Hee began a press conference at the state Capitol yesterday to the sounds of a chorus of coqui frogs.
"Can you hear me when I talk?" Hee said, his voice barely audible beneath frog sounds recently recorded in Waimänalo.
Hee's point was that the tiny noisemakers have returned to Waimänalo where, he said, they are mounting a "second invasion" and pose a threat to the nursery owners who depend on potted plant sales. The movement of potted plants is associated with the spread of the coqui frog, an invasive species with no natural predators here.
The spread of the frogs toward the mountains, where they would be more difficult to control, could bring quarantine restrictions to merchants on Windward O'ahu similar to those in place in parts of the Big Island, he said.
If Waimänalo merchants can't ship off island, their businesses could suffer greatly, said Hee, D-23rd (Käne'ohe, Kahuku), chairman of the Senate Committee on Water, Land, Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs.
"The concern is that unless the state takes an aggressive posture with the landscape industry and the nurseries, we may end up like Hilo," Hee said.
Meanwhile, efforts to prevent the spread of coqui frogs have been thwarted by recent reductions in the ranks of Agriculture Department inspectors due to state budget cuts, Hee said. Such cuts have reduced the number of inspectors from 112 to 81.
"Of all the state departments," Hee said, "the Department of Agriculture has been cut the most — 43 percent."
Legislative bills aimed at restoring the money to pay for additional agriculture inspectors will be heard this week, Hee said.
As he spoke, the senator held up two empty water bottles that contained nine tiny coqui frogs he said had been collected recently near a nursery in Waimänalo. Hee said the bottles included pregnant female coqui frogs, indicating that the spread of the frogs could happen swiftly.
Hee was seated next to Carol Okada, branch manager of the Department of Agriculture, and Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawai'i Farm Bureau.
"We've been saying all along that you do these kinds of cuts to the Department of Ag and you're going to have these invasive species traveling in our Islands," Okimoto said. "And that's exactly what's starting to happen."
Okada said if the frogs reach the forests, it would be much more difficult to contain and eradicate them.
"They (nursery operators) are very concerned about this new population," she said.
The frogs are believed to have hitched a ride to Hawai'i in plants shipped from Puerto Rico or Florida in the 1990s. In Hawai'i, there are no natural predators, such as snakes, to keep the coqui numbers under control.
Coqui frogs are loved in Puerto Rico, where the creatures are indigenous. Songs, poems and stories are written about the frogs, and they are pictured on T-shirts, post cards and magazine covers.
"The coqu[0xed]es begin to sing when the sun goes down at dusk," reports El Boricua, a monthly publication for Puerto Ricans. "Their melody serenades islanders to sleep."
But Hee said that in Hawai'i, where the frog's sounds are considered noise, the creatures can bring down property values.
"We're trying to nip this in the bud," he said.