Audit criticizes state's invasive species control efforts

Audit criticizes state's invasive species control efforts
(image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(image: Hawaii News Now/file)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - From coqui frogs to coconut rhinoceros beetles and the coffee berry borer, Department of Agriculture inspectors are the first line of defense against the spread of invasive species.

However, the department is struggling with staff shortages and antiquated technology.

The state auditor said the Department of Agriculture hasn't moved quickly enough to improve while the threat to agriculture has increased.

The state auditor said the agriculture department's biosecurity efforts could be called "bioinsecurity."

But the department said the auditor does not provided a balanced picture of the battle to fight invasive insects.

The state auditor reports the department is able to inspect only about 2.5% of an estimated 34 million tons of domestic cargo and decisions about what to inspect are haphazard.

"They're using outdated methods instead of using a date driven, risk based, 21st century approach that the USDA as well as other foreign jurisdictions have embraced. The department is just using outdated methods that really rely upon individual inspectors personally experiences to decide what to inspect," said state auditor Les Kondo.

Kondo said one inspector described training and communication as "caveman style" handed down verbally from one inspector to another.

He said interceptions of imported insects have dropped dramatically from 1,748 in fiscal year 2014 to 800 in fiscal year 2016.

The department said it is working to improve tracking of shipments. But it also complained about being understaffed and underpaid.

"State positions are not offered competitive wages which leads to high turnover and attrition rates as federal agencies and private companies can provide employment with higher pay and benefits," Board of Agriculture Chairperson Scott Enright said in the audit.

However, Kondo said staffing funds were restored several years ago and still nothing has changed.

"The department has tried to move into the 21st century on how it does its inspections, they've spent over 10 years, and over $4.2 million trying to develop a database, it just doesn't work," Kondo said.

The department's response also complained about the negative tone of the audit and said it was unfair and didn't mention that other agencies, including the land department and university experts are also involved in invasive species control.

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