Flint Hughes, an ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Island Forestry (IPIF), has been working on the problem for several years. He said the tree species has diversified across Hawaii from the coastal lowlands to the tree lines of the highest mountains. They serve as habitats for native animals and provide watersheds.
“Degradation of those forests is really both a heavy impact on our native ecosystems as well as Hawaiian citizens’ health and welfare,” Hughes said.
He said that early aerial surveys from 2012, showed an infected area of about 2,471 acres. In 2016, aerial surveys identified between 35,000 to 40,000 acres of land suffering 10 percent or greater mortality due to the infection by the Ceratocystis fungus.
Since 2012, the issue of rapid Ohia death has been a major focus for both scientists and government leaders in Hawaii.
“It's been so cooperative and collaborative among the various agencies, whether the county, state or federal,” Hughes said. “I think that's a testament to how everyone feels so concerned about the disease and is really doing everything they can do keep it from expanding.”
Right now, about 5 percent of the ‘Ohi’a lehua population on Hawaii island is affected. The Department of Agriculture has put a quarantine on forestry products to protect the smaller islands from infection.
“We know for a fact that the quarantine is stopping the movement of these materials to other islands,” Hughes said. Testing of outgoing materials has several times found and stopped infected lumber before it left the island.
According to the Rapid Ohia Death webpage of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii, another strain of the fungus has been affecting sweet potato crops in Hawaii for decades. However, the strain that’s killing the Ohia is a new variety. Hughes said the fungus was most likely transported to Hawaii on nursery materials, probably from Asia or Latin America.
“We don’t know for sure where this came from or what region of the world,” Hughes said. “That’s going to be very important for us to figure out as soon as we can because it may give us insight on how best to manage it.”
Hughes and his colleagues have yet to find a cure for the disease. They’re working on an anti-fungal treatment, but Hughes said such treatments are unlikely to work on a large scale. According to the Rapid Ohia Death webpage, the Ceratocystis fungus has been found in soils under infected trees and can contaminate tools used to cut or prune trees, but the precise transmission method of the disease is not yet known.
The new funding from the Department of the Interior may go toward research into some of those topics or toward further containment efforts. A consortium of scientists, federal and state agencies has been activated as an Early Detection Rapid Response Team along with the federal funding.
“Prior to today's announcement, many of the same federal, state and scientific representatives involved were able to identify the fungus that causes Ohia tree mortality, as well as developed methods to detect the fungal agent and began tracking the spread of the disease,” said Amanda Dergroff, deputy press secretary at the Department of the Interior.
The total budget for the EDRR Team is $1.170 million taxpayer dollars. Of that, $497,000 is Service First funding, a congressionally sanctioned interdepartmental effort between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior. The remaining $673,000 comprises in-kind donations from the U.S. Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service.
The results of this collaboration may influence responses to other invasive species threats in the future, Degroff said. “What is learned from the interdepartmental/intergovernmental approach this intervention effort employs will be applicable to addressing other invasive species of priority concern across Hawaii and elsewhere in the United States,” Degroff said.
Hughes isn’t thinking that far ahead yet. He’s focused on the task at hand in Hawaii.
“This new support … is going to be increasing the already existent funds that we have and it's a blessing,” Hughes said. “It will allow us to do more work faster and better and it will also help us to leverage other funds and other resources that we have to do even more work.”