Snakes on a plane: Board of Agriculture approves import of two non-native species

  • FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, a brown tree snake is held by a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist at Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. territory of Guam. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is importing four brown tree snakes to be used to train dogs to detect the dangerously invasive species and hopefully prevent the snakes from establishing themselves in the state. Brown tree snakes invaded Guam and nearly wiped out the island's bird species. Hawaii has no native snakes and several species of protected and endangered birds. (AP Photo/Eric Talmadge, File)
  • Brown tree snake. (USDA photo)
  • A sabelfish is seen resting on the sediment in this undated photo. (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)

KAILUA-KONA — In an effort to ensure brown tree snakes never establish themselves in Hawaii, the state Department of Agriculture is taking what appears an ironic step.

It’s bringing four of them in.


Jonathan Ho, acting manager of the department’s Plant Quarantine Branch, said the Hawaii Board of Agriculture approved an import request for four sterile, male brown tree snakes at its meeting Tuesday in Honolulu.

The snakes are destined for the Hawaii Dog Detector Program where they will be used to train four Jack Russell terriers/terrier mixes to hunt for any of the dangerously invasive snakes that might make their way to Hawaii by plane, ship or cargo carrier.

Brown tree snakes invaded Guam and essentially wiped out the island’s bird species, Ho said. Hawaii has several endangered birds and a mandate to protect them.

“The primary focus is for the brown tree snakes,” Ho said. “However, Hawaii has no species of snakes and the dogs do generalize, so any type of snake we would take action upon.”

Brown tree snakes were last imported for training in 2001. The detector program began in the 1990s but was discontinued during the reduction of force in 2009. The Department of Agriculture (HDOA) reinstated the program in 2016.

No snakes of any kind have been detected since that time, said Ho, adding the last time a snake was found was 1998. That’s partly because of in-state efforts and partly because the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services conducts checks to clear transport vessels and containers of invasive species on the front end, creating a two-tiered system.

Terriers are used because they’re small-prey dogs characterized by active responses to detection, like scratching and digging.

Beyond the precautions of all four snakes being male and sterilized, HDOA will employ a third line of defense in the form of radio transmitters surgically implanted in the reptiles before their arrival in Hawaii.

Ho said the detection program should receive the snakes inside of a few months.


Also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was the import of sablefish eggs for aquaculture purposes at Pacific Planktonics, a business located at Kailua-Kona’s Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority that has largely specialized in ornamental and edible marine tropical fish, according to NELHA’s website.

Ho said the department was erring on the side of caution when it designated sablefish on its list of restricted animals several years ago, as it appeared the fish had never established itself anywhere near the Hawaiian Islands.

The concern, as for most non-native species, is that the effects of its introduction would be unknowable and potentially damaging.

The sablefish, a relatively cold-water fish, wouldn’t be likely to survive in the warm surface waters of the Kona Coast, however. And because of the way it will be cultivated, any escape to the ocean would be unlikely.

“They’re all going to be raised in man-made, above-ground tanks,” Ho said.

Syd Kraul, owner and operator of Pacific Planktonics, could not be reached for comment. However, multiple people familiar with the business said the plan would likely be to cultivate the animals for use in miso butterfish.

The company is a small operation and would likely sell the fish exclusively on the Big Island or exclusively within the state.

Because sablefish thrive in cold water, NELHA’s pumping capabilities make it an ideal location for such cultivation. A former NELHA company, Unlimited Halibut, also raised sablefish there before the business folded several years ago.


Ho said the submittal for import to the board mentioned multiple shipments of eggs.

“I don’t believe there was a finite number, but with that being said, there wasn’t necessarily a restriction placed either,” he said.

  1. Lance Owens December 10, 2018 9:22 am

    Doesnt history prove that it would be smarter to just send the 4 dogs down there and use them in real life detection, vs sending 4 snakes to Hawaii ?
    Stupidest idea since mongooses were going to take care of the rat problem?
    Our government can be full …….. Never mind, mother taught me that if I didnt have anything good to say, dont say it.

    1. Buds4All December 10, 2018 12:07 pm

      Naw what could go wrong?

      1. Du Mhan Yhu December 13, 2018 5:46 pm

        Being the incompetent liberals in charge, anything and everything would go wrong.

        With only the best intentions of course, and some cash distributed when no one was looking.

    2. rkover December 10, 2018 2:29 pm

      Agreed. Why not just send the dogs to Guam? Too many opportunities for something to go wrong. And it will.

  2. Buds4All December 10, 2018 12:10 pm

    Can’t wait to read the WHT headlines. “Snake handler stoned and leaves snake cage unlatched and Brown Tree Snakes escape!” on a side note the snakes were not sterile so sorry HI!

    1. Du Mhan Yhu December 15, 2018 5:39 pm

      The only truly sterile snake is one cut into pieces

      1. Buds4All December 15, 2018 6:13 pm

        Now the West Kona Trouser Snake (aka The Meth Lizard) from the Old industrial area seems to had its potency yanked from it’s crank?

  3. Dan December 10, 2018 4:49 pm

    The more I read about the stupidity of these plans from The Department of Ag, the more I realize the inmates are running the asylum. With all the invasive species problems, the Department of Ag hasn’t been able to solve or abate here on the Big Island (coqui frogs, veiled chameleon, mongoose, apple snails and the list goes on, Scott Carpenter and his minions have had to find a new project to co-opt funding from the state without any proven results through the DLNR, Big Island Invasive Species committee or their own staff. Perhaps inhabitants of the Big Island should demand more from the stewards of the Ag department as it has become nothing more than lip service at the cost of your own property values and their disregard for them.

  4. Chickie Galore December 10, 2018 6:54 pm

    This is the end of it all. Just wait and see. They will blow it somehow, like always, and the snakes will eat everything. Where is Suzanne Case on this? And the Nature Conservancy, etc? Goodbye Birds! How stupid and who is going to stop this? No doubt send the dogs to Guam….anyone listening?

  5. metalman808 December 11, 2018 8:26 am

    Seems to me the best place the dogs could learn would be in Guams jungles. Not in a lab with over paid bozos.

  6. Du Mhan Yhu December 13, 2018 5:44 pm

    I hate farging snakes.

    Death on sight!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email