Niihau fishermen cry foul over plan to clear nearby island of rats

Updated: Jul. 24, 2017 at 5:24 PM HST
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(Image: Dept. of Land and Natural Resources)
(Image: Dept. of Land and Natural Resources)

WAIMEA, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - State officials say they're moving ahead with a second attempt at eradicating rats from a tiny island near Niihau, but critics of the plan say they're worried about the potential risks to the marine environment.

The goal is to help restore endangered and threatened native seabirds on Lehua Island, a small state-sponsored seabird sanctuary that's less than a mile from Niihau.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources tried and failed to eradicate rats on the island nearly eight years ago. The state now wants to try again, and the final environmental assessment for the project recently led to a finding of no significant impact.

"The best available science is that this is a really well-designed project that should not result in any lasting impact for the environment or the community," said Josh Atwood, the state invasive species coordinator for DLNR.

Officials say they want to drop poison pellets from helicopters three times next month. Putting the bait out during the dry summer season, Atwood says, will mean fewer food choices for rodents. The new version of the bait is also designed to be more appealing to rats.

But area fishermen say they're worried about the rodenticide ending up in the ocean and harming marine life. They say dead fish washed up on Niihau and a whale calf beached itself after similar drops in the past.

"We may never know exactly for sure what caused the event in 2009, but we know that Diphacinone was not found in those fish tissues," said Atwood. "Whale calves don't actually feed when they're in the waters in Hawaii, so there's no pathway for Diphacinone that was somehow in the water at the time to have gotten into that whale calf."

Some fishermen aren't convinced that there is no connection.

"Being a coincidence, we don't accept that, that the fish died coincidentally at the same time they dropped the last time," said Harold Vidinha, president of the Kekaha Hawaiian Homestead Association.

Opponents want more studies to be done, since families on Niihau rely on the ocean for food.

"It's a bad idea with the research we've done and found out compared to what they're saying," Vidinha said. "There's other ways to do this. More expensive, but a lot safer."

The estimated cost of the project is $1 million, with most of the funding coming from private sources, according to Atwood.

Once three pending permits are approved, the eradication project could start in a few weeks. The DLNR is holding its third public meeting about the project on July 25 at 6 p.m. at the Waimea Neighborhood Community Center.

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