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Ship Logs

Departure Anxiety and Invasive Species
by Andy Collins

I woke up last night in a sweat with echoing visions of Ozzy Osbourne in my head telling me where to get this or that item I still need for the voyage. "Yeah, mate, for the cheap shoes go to the Ross store downtown, and for the 2 ½ gallon ziplock bags go to…." Aaagh! The date of departure is getting closer and I am worried that I may be forgetting something.

My living room floor is covered in gear that I stumble over as I go to the fridge to get a drink of water. This is ridiculous I think. Half the food in my freezer has been displaced by ziplocked bags of frozen new clothes - new shoes, hat, shorts, and shirt for each of the quarantined land areas we will be visiting in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Orange five gallon buckets are stacked in a corner of the room, ready to receive the bags of frozen clothes, one for each area so I don't get confused. The freezing is intended to kill all the invertebrates - ants and other insects - and may even kill off some of the seeds and other plant matter that may be conspiring to stow away for the voyage up north.

When my friends ask about the frozen clothes and ponder the ridiculousness of such a rule, I carefully explain how even a single introduced species to the fragile and tiny island habitats in the NWHI can have disastrous results. The most obvious and dramatic examples of how introduced species can modify these islands is with larger animals introduced in the past - rats to Midway or rabbits to Laysan - the effects of the latter can be seen in a video from the 1923 Tanager Expedition. But, even introduction of a single plant species can have a great impact, and once a new species is established it is very expensive and requires thousands of man-hours to remove it. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawai‘i, DLNR have done an amazing job over the last few decades in restoring the native character of these island habitats and in doing so may have secured the survival of many rare, threatened or endangered species that live there and nowhere else. Even with precautions such as freezing clothes there is a constant threat from accidental introduction and the USFWS and DLNR keep up a constant watch.

To put the threat from invasive species into context with the main Hawaiian Islands here is a passage from the foreword to a great little book put out by Bishop Museum - Hawai‘i's Invasive Species, A Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in the Hawaiian Islands. "So far the Survey [Hawai‘i Biological Survey] has enumerated more than 4,500 alien species in the Islands. To put this figure into perspective, the continental United States is estimated to have about 93,000 species of insects, of which about 3,000 (3.2%) are aliens. In the Hawaiian Islands there are 8,281 insect species, of which 2,848 (34.4%) are aliens. Clearly the Islands have a major problem."

In my wanderings around the backcountry of O‘ahu I am continuously reminded of how introduced species have replaced native vegetation. Most of the beautiful flowers that are associated with Hawai‘i are not native, and most of the birds that are commonly seen are either intentional introductions or accidental. It is not until I hike high into the mountains that I commonly see native species. But even at 3,000 plus feet, miles away from the city, the native vegetation is being threatened by alien ants and the native species that may help them to reproduce are disappearing.

Before humans came to Hawai‘i it was very difficult for any species to become established due to the great physical distance from other land masses. Species that did become established became very specialized in a particular ecological niche over time. They often lost defensive adaptations that made them competitive in their home area but were no longer Flightless rail of Laysan Island.  Extinct.needed in Hawai‘i because the same predators were not present. Some birds lost the ability to fly, and some plants lost their thorns. When humans came to Hawai‘i many new species were introduced in a very short period of time and the ecological balance was upset. Today the main Hawaiian Islands have many regulations to prevent introductions of nonnative species but with millions of people visiting and transiting through Hawai‘i each year it is a constant struggle. Since the NWHI are so remote and access is limited it is still possible to prevent introductions of new species.

I certainly do not want to be remembered as the guy who accidentally introduced X plant to one of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, subsequently causing the extinction of Y plant and Z animal. So, I diligently buy all new clothes for each area, freeze them for 48 hours, and store them in their own buckets. And at this moment it dawns on me that I still need one more pair of new shoes so maybe my dream visit from Ozzy had a purpose. Maybe tonight he'll return to remind me of something else I am forgetting!

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