LIHUE — Rep. Dee Morikawa is again asking the state to stop the Lehua Island rat-eradication project.
That’s in the midst of an ongoing investigation into the deaths of 45 fish and two birds on the island, discovered days after two applications of rodenticide-laced bait were dropped onto the island via helicopter.
“The rat eradication project by the state clearly may be causing these deaths, and that poison could enter our food chain, threatening the lives and livelihoods of Kauai residents,” Morikawa said in a Sept. 7 letter sent to leaders of two state departments.
She is asking project managers to delay the third scheduled drop of the rodenticide diphacinone onto Lehua Island until the U.S. Department of Agriculture can determine the animals’ cause of death.
It’s the second letter Morikawa has sent to Suzanne Case, chairperson of the Board of Land and Natural Resources and Scott Enright, chairperson of the Department of Agriculture, urging them to stop the drop.
DLNR representatives confirmed the receipt of Morikawa’s letter with TGI on Friday, and said, “the department will respond directly to her.”
“Although they’ve called me, they couldn’t say if they would stop,” Morikawa said. “They seem to believe that death is inevitable.”
State Department of Land and Natural Resources and partners have acknowledged there are “some short-term risks” with the project, and they’ve secured federal and state permits that allow some of the bait to reach the marine environment.
“The small potential for short-lived risks to non-target species is far outweighed by the long-term conservation benefits of an invasive-rat-free Lehua Island,” project organizers said in a statement.
The goal of the Lehua Island restoration project is to eliminate all rats living on the island in order to create a sanctuary for nesting seabirds. Currently it is a nesting site for 17 seabird species and habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
Project leaders have not released an estimated number of rats on the island, though they say they are widespread.
The first helicopter application of the bait pellets, made of cereal and the restricted-use pesticide diphacinone, was Aug. 24, and the second was on Aug. 30.
Each was completed in about three hours, and blanketed the 284-acre island in thousands of bait pellets, which also landed in the nearshore waters surrounding the island.
On Sept. 3, a group of recreational boaters discovered and documented dead amaama, or striped mullet fish, and two brown booby birds floating in the water among bait pellets. A video of the discovery was posted on social media.
“A lot of people are wondering why they didn’t take samples,” said Dustin Barca, a Kauai resident.
He continued: “They weren’t there for research, they were just out because it was a nice day and then they saw the pellets. They were concerned about what they saw in the water, so they swam over and checked it out.”
Two days later, DLNR confirmed an investigation into the dead fish and birds, and said samples didn’t show any immediate evidence of impact from the rodenticide.
“Mortalities of fish and seabirds occur regularly, and there are many other plausible causes for these deaths,” DLNR said in a statement.
But the possibility that the bait pellets killed the fish and birds is enough to stir concern in the Kauai community.
“Lehua Island is like the icebox for Kauai’s Westside,” Barca said. “People go there to get crabs and opihi for birthday parties and things like that.”
DLNR representatives said the third drop is planned for about 10 days after the second application.
That makes the tentative date for the final drop this weekend, depending on weather conditions and the receipt of the aerial application permit from HDOA. Enright said Friday afternoon he had not signed the necessary permit.