The state's Plant Quarantine Branch doesn't have the data gathering and analysis tools it needs to respond to invasive species threats, even though it has spent $4.2 million on an electronic database aimed at doing just that, a new state audit concludes.
The centralized database, which the state has been trying to develop over more than a decade, was billed as key to helping the state stop invasive species threats.
But it doesn't include key data on invasive species, or support e-manifesting on low-risk cargo. That means data collected by state agriculture inspectors isn't shared throughout the branch.
Because of the limitations of the database, inspectors also don't get up-to-date information on pest interception data.
"We found that PQB inspection activities vary from inspector to inspector," the state audit said. "The little guidance inspectors do receive from the department is outdated or infrequently updated. Other information is communicated, in the words of one PQB inspector, 'caveman style' -- handed down verbally from one inspector to another."
Auditors said that's incredibly troubling given the tremendous volume of cargo that comes into Hawaii's ports every day. In 2015, some 34 million tons of domestic cargo was imported to the islands. Of that, 2.5 percent was inspected by the state.
Without a workable database, the audit said, inspectors can't identify new and emerging threats, improve its practices, focus their limited resources on the highest threats.
The report comes as the state is grappling with a host of invasive pests, including little fire ants and the rhinoceros beetle.
In its response to the state auditor, Board of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright acknowledged problems with the database and hiring, but said the audit fails to paint a full picture of plant inspections in the islands.
He also noted that the Plant Quarantine Branch is not the only entity responsible for biosecurity in the state.