An alien scale insect, Tectococcus ovatus, imported from Brazil, is planned on being released to infest the entire State of Hawaii’s strawberry guava trees. Endemic to Hawaii where it was introduced in 1825, strawberry guava is an ornamental tree prized for its landscape and aesthetic value, useful hardwood, delicious and abundant fruit, and vigorous growth.
The scale insect will attack the dark green, smooth, beautiful leaves, producing disfiguring galls, or cysts. The tree will become weak, as new growth is attacked. Sapped of energy, less fruit is expected to be produced. When cut, new growth will be attacked. If there is a drought or other stress on the trees, they can completely lose their leaves, and new leaves will not easily grow back.
Each gall will excrete waxy filaments carrying tiny eggs, along with tiny, crawling nymph insects, which will be spread by the wind. Males are small, as well, and fly. The air will be filled with insect particles, eggs, crawling nymphs, and flying males. Allergy, asthma, dermatitis, skin, ear and nose infections from itching and scratching, are all possible, but are not being addressed at all by the government.
Under quarantine conditions in Hawai’i, the scale reproduces continuously, with a generation time of 6-10 weeks. In two generations, numbers build to a level that causes stunting of small potted plants.
The infestation in the wild could be extreme and unprecedented, since there are no predators for this scale insect in Hawaii, as there are in Brazil. Strawberry guava also grows more densely here in Hawaii, making it easier for the scale to spread. This is an admitted experiment, and once done it is irreversible. All they can do is study the impacts, not stop them.
Since all trees will become infested, private property owners will have to protect their trees with oil based pesticides, which might reduce but will not eliminate the scale insect since the female is usually protected inside its gall. If you cut your trees to use the wood, it will not easily grow back. Defoliated, dying trees will create a fire risk. And without planting anything to replace the dead and dying strawberry guava, useless weeds will move in.
The government hopes that studies done in Brazil and a greenhouse in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are good enough to predict what the insect will attack when released. But no promises. And nobody really knows over time what will happen. Since strawberry guava is a relative of the o’hia, there is the real possibility of the insect evolving or adapting to attack our o’hia and other myrtle species.
Should the government compensate property owners for damages to the aesthetics and usefulness of their strawberry guava trees, and the costs of spraying and replacing trees? The government knows it might need to, so it literally denies that strawberry guava is a natural and cultural resource.
They have to say this, because if they admit that they are taking away from the people a natural and cultural resource that has been part of Hawaii for nearly two centuries, there will be a trigger for an Environmental Impact Statement, and they will have to compensate the public.
The EA also says strawberry guava is not a significant cultural resource because it was not mentioned in ancient Hawaiian culture, and they say native practitioners who use strawberry guava “should” use native species of trees for cultural items, instead of strawberry guava. They also ignore the rest of Hawaii’s population and culture which strongly protested against this insect release last year. The EA ignores the resolution, passed by the Hawaii County Council in 2009, banning this insect release. It ignores the 5,000 petition signatures opposing the insect. It ignores the State House and Senate proposed resolutions banning biocontrol against food plants. It ignores the street protests in Hilo and Honokaa, and the general outrage that an alien insect is being proposed to attack a valued resource.
There is a clear disrespect throughout the EA for anything not native, be it plant, animal, or culture. The overlying message is that anything that was not here 400 years ago doesn’t count and should not be here.
They say we have enough food and wood, that they don’t think the galled leaves will be noticed by the public, that the introduction of trillions upon trillions of alien scale insects infesting hundreds of thousands of acres of strawberry guava does not require an Environmental Impact Statement. They say their project will have “No Significant Impact”.
They say how urgent the need, how desperate the fight, how worth the risk and sacrifices. They don’t say how their minds are already made up, how their grants are already funded, and how they should have done the EA years ago, at the beginning of the project, not at the end.
The EA is so blinded by its own bias that it disregards the value, appreciation, and love people have for this tree. Replacement costs for these ornamental fruit trees could be thousands of dollars each, depending on its size, shape, placement in the landscape, and other factors. There are probably millions of privately owned strawberry guava trees throughout the state. The liability for the government could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as it was for Florida when the Florida and Federal governments killed 500,000 privately owned citrus trees to fight citrus canker. A class action lawsuit gave the public full replacement costs for each tree.
They know not to directly attack the yellow guava, since there is a commercial industry for that fruit. They would love to get rid of yellow guava, since it is just as “invasive” and perhaps even more widespread than strawberry guava. But they know they will have to pay for the damages to the industry. Since Hawaii does not at the present time have a strawberry guava industry, they think there is no economic loss.
They ignore the aesthetics of the tree and the non-commercial use of the fruit by everyday people. To them, aesthetics and food don’t matter. Their job is to attack non-native species. They are a pest control service. They have to sell us on the notion that our strawberry guava trees are useless weeds, because they have an insect that they want to ram down our throats.
We must demand an EIS, to force them to consider all the issues. To make them do one, we need to first comment on the EA. You need to comment to get legal standing to sue later for an EIS.
The environmental assessment (EA) for this insect release was just published, and the 30-day comment period began on June 23, 2010. Comments are required by July 23. You can read the EA here:https://oeqc.doh.hawaii.gov/Shared%20Documents/EA_and_EIS_Online_Library/Statewide/2010s/2010-06-23-ST-DEA-Biocontrol-Strawberry-Guava.pdf
Together we may be able to save the islands from this planned pestilence.
Sydney Ross Singer is the Director of the Good Shepherd Foundation on the island of Hawaii