HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu International Airport badly needs more plant quarantine inspectors' positions reinstated to deal with the nearly four million boxes of produce, seafood, flowers and plants that are inspected there every year, officials from the state Department of Agriculture said.
The inspectors are the first line of defense to keep insects and other pests out of Hawaii's environment.
At Pacific Air Cargo Tuesday morning, inspectors opened boxes of produce from California, Mexico and Guatemala at Pacific Air Cargo, using flashlights and magnifying glasses to inspect strawberries.
They also searched a container of mangoes, tomatoes, lettuce and other produce for any insect that would do harm to Hawaii's ecosystem.
"It affects our agriculture, so we don't want it to come here. So we try to prevent it as much as possible," said inspector Carrie Itoman.
Before statewide layoffs in 2009, there were enough inspectors to staff nearly round-the-clock shifts of quarantine inspectors at Honolulu Airport. But now there are just seven to nine of them on a weekday, meaning there's just one day shift of inspectors. Five inspectors handle screening duties around HNL on weekends, also with no night shift anymore.
It's impossible to look at each box of produce, so they prioritize.
"We have certain items that we look for the leafy stuff (such as lettuce) and peppers, that often have insect pests on them, and that's what we would target first," said Rex Haraguchi, another plant quarantine inspector.
Tuesday, inspectors found a bug on a baby bok choy from Mexico and determined it was just a fly, and not a threat to Hawaii's environment.
They also search cut flowers and plants shipped to the islands and discovered four suspicious insects in this box of eucalyptus, so the inspectors collected the critters for analysis and sealed up the box for quarantine until the test results come in.
"We have a lot of jobs that we have to do with the limited staff. It's been very task-full of trying to do all these duties," said inspector Glenn Sakamoto.
There's also live and frozen seafood from Canada that must be inspected for barnacles that could have invasive species on them.
Under staffing "means that cargo has to be delayed until the next morning because we can't fill a shift, particularly at night," Sakamoto said, unless cargo companies choose to pay the overtime for state inspectors to work after hours.
Lawmakers are voting this week on restoring about 12 inspectors to Honolulu airport, which would allow a regular night shift to operate once again in about two years, once new recruits are hired and fully trained.
Besides inspecting incoming cargo at freight forwarders such as FedEx and UPS, the airport inspectors also screen cargo from airlines, the military and the U.S. Postal Service, stretching them very thin, Sakamoto said.
"I just want to make sure that the public knows an awareness of the different multitude of jobs that the plant quarantine inspector will do to protect Hawaii from invasive species entering Hawaii," Sakamoto said.
He said he hoped inspectors' positions will be restored so they can get products to market a lot more quickly.