LIHUE — The Lehua Island restoration project has been given the green light and the first round of poison-laced bait could be dropped as soon as 6 this morning.
“Our teams are indeed prepared to consider commencing the operation tomorrow,” Dan Dennison, spokesman for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources told TGI on Tuesday.
The operation to rid Lehua Island of its invasive rat infestation received the last of the two needed documents for the first application about noon Tuesday. That permit is an aerial application permit from the state’s Department of Agriculture.
The planned operation was met with concerns on Kauai that the poison would negatively impact marine life — both endangered and other species, fishing patterns, and the health of the birds. Kauai residents also questioned the project’s potential for success after a failed attempt to rid the island of rats in 2009.
The plan’s been tweaked since 2009, with drop dates that take into account weather and the patterns of the seabirds.
Three meetings were held on Kauai regarding the project and the last, held at the end of July, was a heated meeting that didn’t allow for the clear asking of questions, or clear answers according to project organizers and community members.
After the July 25 meeting, Rep. Dee Morikawa asked DLNR to hold another meeting to answer public questions.
Instead, DLNR sent its representatives and members from Island Conservation to meet with media and with people one-on-one on Kauai to chat about the project.
And while all of that was happening, DLNR was staging Niihau for the operation. It’s been going on for days according to Dennison, and Kauai residents say they’ve been watching staging at Niihau for weeks.
That’s one of the concerns within the community that hasn’t been resolved, according to those opposed to the project.
“We’ve been here sitting and waiting and hoping they don’t sign the permits and while we’re waiting and praying, they (DLNR) are staging the operation. It’s blatant,” said Harold Vidinha, a Kekaha resident. “While we’re praying, they’re staging.”
He continued: “They put thousands of dollars into it before they got the permits. They were setting up everything ready to go, it’s just a formality to get the permit.”
That last document was the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s aerial application permit for use of the restricted use pesticide diphacinone.
The poison has been added to specially formulated pellets in a combination of .0005 percent diphacinone poison and 99.995 percent inert cereal ingredients per pellet. The company Bell Laboratories, Inc. created it especially for the operation.
It took several weeks for Scott Enright, head of HDOA, to sign the aerial application permit for the first application on Lehua Island because he was looking into community concerns about the impacts to the environment and fishing.
“We’ve put more conditions on this permit than we ever have in the history of the department,” Enright said. “Because of that, I believe there’s a very high chance of success.”
Enright traveled to Niihau on Tuesday afternoon to get ready for the application and said he’ll be on-site to monitor the drop.
“The head of DOA doesn’t usually monitor these things from the ground, but with this one, I’ll be there,” Enright said. “We’ll also have an enforcement officer on a boat offshore to monitor the overspray, if there is any.”
The plan is to use a helicopter equipped with a modified hopper that will be filled with bait pellets and distributed over the island using GPS and GIS technology to ensure full coverage.
A deflector has been added to the side of the hopper to minimize overspray into the ocean in a project jointly conducted by the state’s DLNR, Island Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Section 7 letter of concurrence was also required for the project to move forward. That’s what Enright said he was waiting on before he gave his own go-ahead.
Ann Garrett, assistant regional administrator of the protected resources division of National Marine Fisheries Service, confirmed the project received its letter of concurrence Monday night.
“We came up with an ultimate decision that the project wasn’t likely to affect the (endangered or threatened) species,” Garrett said.
Hawaiian monk seals and their critical habitat, green sea turtles, hawksbill sea turtles and insular false killer whales are the species of concern for NOAA and NMFS.
Once the first aerial application has been done, Enright said DOA will be monitoring the results. He said he’s willing to pull the plug on the project if he sees adverse impacts happening.
“If any part of this goes sideways I’ll call it off,” Enright said. “And after application, we’ll be testing fish if there’s a fish kill.”
Weather impacts — like winds over 25 miles per hour or heavy rain — will have a heavy impact on the operation and Enright said if winds reach 25 mph, he’ll shut down the operation.
In fact, weather conditions are the deciding factor for the operation’s drop date and the decision to apply the poisoned bait will be made at 6 a.m. the day of the drop.
“Our operational plan requires a ‘6:00 – day-of’ decision to bait or not bait based on the current and forecasted weather and climactic conditions,” Dennison said.
He continued: “If we see ideal weather conditions and forecast tomorrow at 6 (a.m.), then yes, we expect to commence the operation.”
The plan to rid Lehua Island of rats is a process of three different bait applications, and an aerial application permit is needed for each of the drops.
Enright says he’s held off on signing the remaining two aerial application permits until the first drop has been completed.
“They have to do it successfully the first time,” Enright said.