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U.S. Weighs Spraying All of Hawaii to Attack Medfly

January 24, 1985|BILL CURRY | Times Staff Writer

HONOLULU — The federal government, at the urging of California agriculture interests, is considering a far-reaching plan that includes the possible statewide spraying of Hawaii with the insecticide malathion to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, or Medfly, and two other kinds of fruit fly from the state.

The project, designed to prevent the flies from spreading to California and other agriculture centers on the mainland, has caused a tropical storm of protest to break over the islands, from the verdant valleys of Maui to the steamy streets of Honolulu.

Here, the proposal is viewed as a serious threat to the fragile ecology of Hawaii, as well as to the cisterns and other catchment systems that many people rely on for drinking water.

"It would change our lives dramatically," protests Masako Westcott, who grows tropical flowers with her husband near Haiku, on Maui, far from the conveniences of running water and electricity. "The thought of their spraying (malathion) in our water--and there are many birds that would be affected--it's horrifying."

Opponents say and the U.S. Agriculture Department agrees that the project would pose a risk to the unique and irreplaceable insects, birds and plants that have evolved here and only here.

"This project is so massive it jeopardizes the existence of a number of (beneficial) insects," contends Wayne Gagne, an entomologist with the Bishop Museum here. "A massive decline in non-targeted insects will have consequences up the biological chain."

And of the many native insects that exist on only one island in the world, he adds:

"You make any major change in their habitat, like this project, and these guys face extinction."

Such is the reaction blowing like the trade winds across the islands to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on the project. The report on eradicating the fruit flies here in order to stem their spread to the mainland sets out six possible courses of action. It candidly acknowledges that a statewide assault with malathion poses the biggest benefit for the mainland but the greatest threat to the islands.

When public hearings on the draft environmental report were held last month here and in Maui, the outcry was so great that the Department of Agriculture began considering even more alternatives to spraying malathion repeatedly over every Hawaiian island.

One possibility raised is the use of genetically engineered fruit flies with "lethal genes" that would cause them to die off. But waiting for such an advance would prolong the threat of infestations on the mainland.

California's Infestation

"We strongly support (spraying malathion)," said Rex Magee, associate director of the Department of Food and Agriculture in California, where it is widely believed, though not proven, that Hawaii was the source of California's Medfly infestation in 1980-82. "We spend in excess of $20 million a year to keep out and detect fruit flies.

"Most originate in Hawaii . . . only a few hours from us. They say in Hawaii you can't eradicate them and that it's environmentally harmful. We used malathion . . . and there were no problems."

Already California has agreed to contribute $500,000 for the construction of a federal facility in Hawaii to rear sterile fruit flies for use in eradication programs. For years, the state had also contributed to the operation of a temporary sterile-fly laboratory in Hawaii.

'Tri-Fly Complex'

The three fruit flies--the Medfly, the melon fly and the Oriental fruit fly--were accidentally introduced by man into Hawaii beginning about 1895. They have come to be known as the "tri-fly complex." For years, to keep them from reaching the mainland, exported fruit has been fumigated, tourists' luggage has been searched and freight has been inspected.

According to E.J. Stubbs of the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, plans to eradicate the fruit flies from Hawaii have been "discussed and cussed" for years. But with the California Medfly invasion, which took more than $100 million and repeated sprayings of malathion to protect state citrus crops, support for eradication gained new impetus.

Final approval to go ahead with program would be made by Congress, which would have to appropriate funds to carry out the spraying program, Stubbs said.

It is unclear what role the state of Hawaii could play in any decision to eradicate the flies, but a 1957 law passed by Congress gives the Agriculture Department the responsibility to prevent the spread of pests within the United States.

"We put pressure on Congress to provide funds for an environmental impact statement and to provide the methodology (for an eradication program)," said Magee of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "California put its muscle behind tri-fly eradication to get it done."

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