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.