Lehua response fueled by anti-science panic, not facts

Here we go again.

A scientifically defensible action that should protect endangered bird species on Lehua Island near Niihau is falling into the same sort of anti-science and panic-committed dynamic that brought us the controversy over genetically engineered agriculture and pesticide use.

Regrettably, the same failures of communication by government entities that allowed the GMO controversy to get up steam appear to have affected the public perception of the announced action by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to eradicate rats on Lehua by dropping pellets that are mostly made up of what the rats will think is food, but which contain a tiny amount of a rodenticide that, it is hoped, will kill them.

It’s hard to imagine anyone finding a Lehua overrun by rats something that should be preserved. That’s especially true when you consider that Lehua, according to an Audubon Society background paper, is home to 25,000 pairs of 11 different seabird species. That includes 23,000 pairs wedge-tailed shearwaters, 521 pairs of brown footed boobies, 1,294 pairs of red-footed boobies, 16 pairs of black-footed albatross and 28 pairs of Laysan albatross. It is, in other words, a major avian center that includes at least two endangered species.

The reality is the absolute numbers of birds and their ability to nest and breed are under direct and continuing threat by the rats. So in 2008, state agencies, working with the private organization Island Conservation, dropped several hundred pounds of pellets — each composed mostly of nutritional products to bait the rats and a small amount of poison.

Problem was, it didn’t work. Within about six months, rats reappeared on Lehua. At about the same time, in early 2009, a fish kill was found near Lehua and a deceased humpback whale was discovered. That was all it took for the tensions over the unsuccessful eradication effort to blow up into a public controversy in which it was claimed that ton after ton of rat poison bombs had been dropped on Lehua, failing to control the rats, but polluting the ocean, harming coral and killing fish and a whale.

Overlooked in the developing controversy was that the rodenticide dropping had occurred at a time when Lehua had received a higher amount of rain than normal, meaning that the rats had so much they could eat that they didn’t bother with the pellets containing the poison. Scientists simply didn’t adequately anticipate that.

The dead fish at first alarmed scientists, but toxicological tests found no traces of the rat poison at issue in the bodies. Fish kills are not unusual — coincidental, but not unusual. As for the whale, humpbacks come to Kauai to breed, not to eat, so the whale in question would not have been feeding at the time. Besides, it would have required a gigantic amount of rat poison to kill something that big. Lehua’s corals showed no evidence of harm, either.

Besides, the poison in question requires being ingested on two or three occasions by the animal it is intended to kill — something that would be highly unlikely for the fish, since there was no measurable runoff from the rodenticide.

All any reasoning person would have had to do was look a thousand miles south of Honolulu to a place called Palmyra Atoll. Owned jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy, Palmyra is ecologically pristine — so much so that it attracts dozens of marine science researchers every year because it is a unique laboratory for sea life.

Palmyra had been taken over by the U.S. Navy in World War II and used as an airbase. The Navy moved out in the 1950s, but it turned out that a huge number of rats had stayed behind. It’s not clear if the rats came with the Navy or on yachts that visited Palmyra at the time.

Rats commonly eat eggs and small chicks and Palmyra has a gigantic population of ground-nesting sea birds — about a million in all. The rats became a growing problem. So, in 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service, with Island Conservation as its contractor, conducted a rat poison drop very much like that envisioned for Lehua. Unlike Lehua, Palmyra has lush vegetation — including many coconut palms. That presented a problem since many of the bait pellets would inevitably never hit the ground and stay in the upper reaches of the palms.

But that was anticipated in the pellet dropping strategies.

It worked. Five years later, a research team led by conservation biologist Coral Wolf found the ongoing damage by rats and dangers to Palmyra’s birds to have been completely resolved. The project was so carefully strategized that the gigantic coconut crabs that inhabit Palmyra and other Palmyra wildlife had not been harmed.

“Thankfully for us and the rest of the walking, crawling and flying inhabitants of (Palmyra),” she wrote, “the intruders are becoming a faint memory.”

By the way, the poison was used on Palmyra is among those that may be employed on Lehua.

This brings us to the present. There has been at least one very contentious public meeting at which anger by people who saw the Lehua project as nothing more than aerial poison bombing was manifest. This is probably where DLNR dug its own grave in terms of public relations. The agency’s information campaign was woefully inadequate.

That eventually attracted the attention of State Rep. Dee Morikawa, who wrote to both DLNR and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to urge delay in the Lehua project — not, it seems, because of what it would do, but because the situation had not been very well explained.

As she wrote to DLNR Chairperson Susan Case, “your work is not done until the community has all of the answers to its questions about the project.” Point taken. DLNR should not take Morikawa’s words lightly. She does not go off on tangents.

For now it’s a waiting game — with no one knowing when or if final permits will be granted.

That DLNR failed in its fundamental public education duty is regrettable. It enabled the same kind of anti-science elements that brought us the GMO/pesticide war to see Lehua as their next cause celebre. We can only hope that we’ve learned the lesson of how destructive this can be and why we should not let this situation escalate to that level again.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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