Big Island Photo by Syd Singer

Big Island Photo by Syd Singer

BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – Hawaii’s beaches have been praised recently as having some of the cleanest waters in the country.

However, on the shores of the Big Island, in plain sight of tourists and locals enjoying the beach and surf, is an ongoing environmental disaster, caused by an invasive species eradication project.

Since 2008, a local nonprofit, called Malama o Puna, working with the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, poisoned nearly 35 acres of mangrove trees growing along the shoreline. The trees were poisoned and left to rot as a cheap way of destroying them.

Why kill mangrove trees, valued worldwide for their environmental services of protecting coral reefs from runoff and the shore from storm surges and tsunamis, providing fish nursery habitat, sequestering carbon to slow climate change, and more?

It’s because here in Hawaii some people consider mangroves an invasive species, since they were brought by humans to Hawaii and are not part of the shoreline ecosystem that existed prior to Western contact.

The poisoned beach parks include Onekahakaha in Hilo, and Isaac Hale (Pohoiki) and Wai Opae Marine Life Conservation District in Puna. The dead trees are now slowing decaying and falling into the water at Wai Opae, a famous snorkeling spot and the first area poisoned as a test for the poison method used.

Without any Environmental Assessment or public comment, government agencies on the federal, state, and county levels cooperated in poisoning the mangroves. Monsanto and chemical giant BASF donated the poisons, glyphosate and imazapyr. Monsanto even gave Malama o Puna a $5,000 grant. In all, over $125,000 have been received for this poisoning from government and private interests.

Hundreds of thousands of mangrove trees were injected or sprayed with poison, causing massive leaf drop into the water. According to the US Forest Service, (a project partner monitoring the impacts of the eradication experiment at Wai Opae), fish counts dropped significantly a year following the poisoning. There was a massive algal bloom in the poisoned areas, and the water became warmer, more acidic, and less oxygenated. And while the Forest Service did not consider impacts of the herbicidal application on coral, locals who snorkel in the area report the coral is dying and fish counts are still much lower than before the eradication.

A citizen lawsuit was filed to stop the poisoning and eradication until an Environmental Assessment was done. See However, the court ruled that it was too late to require an EA, according to a 120 day time limit specified by law.

It was not ruled that an EA was not required. The poisoning of 35 acres of mangrove trees along the shoreline on conservation lands owned by the state and with state and federal money clearly requires an EA, if not an Environmental Impact Statement. But if you sue for an EA to be performed, and the suit starts after 120 days from the time the otherwise illegal action began, then it is too late to sue for an EA. In this case, the lawsuit came a few weeks too late.

However, in the lawsuit settlement with the DLNR Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands (one of the defendants), it was stated that the DLNR expected that the dead mangroves would be removed from the area, not just left to rot in place. The Hawaii Tourism Authority (another defendant), which paid for the Wai Opae poisoning, also stated that they had expected removal of the mangroves. In fact, the project was supposed to be mangrove removal, not just mangrove destruction.

So now there are dead mangrove trees lining the shore on the Big Island, rotting away and entering the ocean, a source of water pollution that poses a threat to the coral reef, swimmers, boaters, and endangered species that use these areas. And unless you enjoy the sight of dead, decaying trees, the beauty of these areas has been seriously impaired.

Clearly, there is a now a water quality issue that needs to be addressed. Essentially, hundreds of thousands of dead trees now line these shores. At 100 pounds per tree on average, this means there are about a million pounds of dead trees rotting and entering the water. That’s 500 tons of dead vegetative material, that essentially has been dumped along our pristine shoreline.

Since this is now a water quality issue, it comes under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Branch (CWB) of the Hawaii Department of Health. What is the CWB doing about this?

The short answer is nothing. The CWB knew about this mangrove project, and questioned the use of herbicides. The concern was that excessive leaf litter resulting from the poisoning could cause water contamination. But since a permit was not required at the time from the CWB (new regulations may require a permit for shoreline herbicide use in the near future), the CWB claims it had no jurisdiction.

I submitted a formal complaint to the CWB in February, 2011, explaining the problem and providing a legal brief on how leaving these mangroves to rot and break into the water constitutes water pollution. I asked the CWB to investigate the situation and require that the mangroves be removed from the areas, as had been expected by the DLNR, HTA, and County of Hawaii.

There was no reply.

Two months later, I contacted the Governor’s office to get the CWB to at least acknowledge receipt of my complaint. The CWB was contacted by the Governor’s office, and I was told they are working on my complaint. But it has been months now, and still no word at all from the CWB.

I was told by an employee at the CWB that it could take a lawsuit to make them deal with this. It seems that government workers need to be sued to do their jobs.

Of course, if our government workers were doing their jobs in the first place, they would have realized there was no logical reason to poison mangroves if they were going to be removed from the area. Why use poison when the trees will be cut and taken away anyway?

Maybe this was just a test site for the use of poisons to kill mangroves. Indeed, the question needs to be asked whether poisoning and leaving a tree to rot is equivalent to “removal” of the tree. This is an important question, since those who would poison mangroves along the shore may also want to “remove” other plants, and animals, that were not here prior to Western contact.

Will our forests become poisoned dead zones with bare, decaying trees and rotting animal carcasses? Since chemical companies seem to control environmentalism, will we need chemical protection suits to go for a hike in the forests? As our watershed is poisoned to eliminate species some people find undesirable, will it harm our health and pollute our environment?

Will the government, and especially the Clean Water Branch of the Department of Health, continue to ignore the damage it has allowed to happen? Will concerned citizens have to again sue to get the government to do its job?

Keep these questions in mind this July 4th weekend as you hit the beaches. And if you happen to be on the Big Island and see some mangroves dead along the shoreline, be careful. You may become a victim of invasive species control.



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Sydney Ross Singer is a medical and environmental anthropologist, author, and director of the Good Shepherd Foundation, located on the Big Island. Sydney is a pioneer of applied medical anthropology, and he is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease.


  1. LITTERBUGS! Stop the Continued Contamination of Hawaii’s Waters

    I had no idea that dead vegetative material from mangroves was such a problem. Thanks to Mr. Singer for bringing that to our attention. University of Hawaii graduate student Amanda Demopoulos studies mangroves in Hawaii and also provides some interesting information:

    Syd Singer: “Clearly, there is a now a water quality issue that needs to be addressed. Essentially, hundreds of thousands of dead trees now line these shores. At 100 pounds per tree on average, this means there are about a million pounds of dead trees rotting and entering the water. That’s 500 tons of dead vegetative material, that essentially has been dumped along our pristine shoreline.”

    Amanda Demopoulos: “An additional factor that may have contributed to higher Hawaiian litterfall rates is the small amount of leaf herbivory observed in introduced mangroves. Leaf fall contributed 11.4 tons/hectare/year in Hawaii, which is similar to Cox and Allen’s (1999) estimates of leaf fall (10.2 tons/hectare/year), but higher than the total litterfall for native mangrove stands.”

    Amanda Demopoulos: “Outwelling mangrove detritus may have a negative impact on surrounding faunal communities in Hawaii. Mangrove detritus, particularly that of R. mangle, is rich in tannins. Tannins are toxic to many fish and bacteria, generally deter herbivores, interfere with the feeding and digestion of detritivores, and cause reduced densities and diversities of benthic meiofauna and macrofauna.”

    Syd Singer: “Since this is now a water quality issue, it comes under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Branch (CWB) of the Hawaii Department of Health.”

    Based on Mr. Singer’s observations and Amanda Demopoulos’ research, mangrove trees are terrible litterbugs. We should be eliminating them from Hawaii’s coastlines as quickly as possible in order to prevent the continued and long-term pollution of our near shore waters.

  2. What difference does it make who brought these trees there? Totally eradicating a species, whether it is animal or natural, always brings bad consequences. You should never be so intrusive when it comes to nature. There is a balance there that needs to be kept.

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