Nativism: The Hawaiian case

The case for native plant and animal restorations is strongest on islands.  They contain the most endemic species, unique to those places.  More extinction has occurred on islands than on the mainland of the United States because species that evolved in isolation are more vulnerable to new competition than species that have evolved with more competition.  Theoretically, if man were able to eradicate non-native species of plants and animals, it would be easier to prevent re-invasions on an island.  Consequently the Hawaiian Islands are a hot-bed of nativism.

The efforts to eradicate many species of plants and animals in the Hawaiian Islands are just as controversial there as they are here in the Bay Area.   Here is a sampling of the legal, environmental, and ethical questions raised by these eradication projects:

  • Coqui frog

    The coqui is a tiny frog that was inadvertently introduced to Hawaii from Puerto Rico in the 1980s.  There are no native frogs in Hawaii, so efforts to eradicate the coqui aren’t predicated on the usual claim that it will out-compete its native counterpart.  In this case, those who launched this campaign claimed that the frog will eat all the insects on the islands, depriving other animals of this food source.  The proposal was to spray highly concentrated caffeine in the forests occupied by the frog.  No tests were conducted to determine what effect this would have on any of the plants or other animals that would be sprayed in the process.

    Strawberry guava, USDS
  • The strawberry guava was introduced to Hawaii as a fruit tree, just as virtually every fruit tree in America was.  The proposal was to eradicate the strawberry guava with biocontrol, which means an insect was introduced that would theoretically feed solely on the strawberry guava.  The theory of biocontrol is more appealing than the reality, which in practice has often introduced new predators that are more difficult to control than the original target.  This eradication effort was also controversial because the strawberry guava is a valuable source of food for all animals in Hawaii, including humans.
  •  Mangroves are coastal forests that are considered valuable nurseries for marine life.  In Hawaii some have been eradicated with herbicides.  The skeletal remains of the mangrove are left to rot in the water, creating an eyesore and a graveyard for the animals that lived there.

                                                Animals are caught in the middle

The endangered monk seal has been caught in the middle of the nativist debate in HawaiiBecause it is endangered, government biologists are obligated by law to try to prevent its extinction.  The monk seal has therefore been introduced to places in the Hawaiian Islands in which it hasn’t previously lived, based on the belief that it will have less competition in these areas.  This introduction of the monk seal into new territory has made it vulnerable to two diametrically opposite sides of this debate.  The monk seals are being bludgeoned to death by someone who doesn’t want them there.  Is it a fisherman who believes the legal protections provided for the endangered seal will threaten his fishing rights?  Or is it one of the nativists who are saying that the seals “don’t belong here?”

Monk Seal, Hawaii Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Sydney Singer is a medical anthropologist who lives in Hawaii.  He is in the forefront of the opposition to the eradication of non-native plants and animals, particularly the toxic methods used by the projects.  He has written a tongue-in-cheek quiz for Hawaiians to get at the bottom of that vexing question about what “belongs” in Hawaii.  With Dr. Singer’s permission, we share this quiz with our readers:

What belongs in Hawaii?

“A NOAA[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]report released last year showed 35 percent of those surveyed at beaches and popular fishing areas on Kauai and Molokai believed the [monk] seals aren’t native to the islands.

This raises a critical question for our legislators to consider as invasive species eradicators come to the public trough for more money to kill plants and animals that “don’t belong in Hawaii”.

How can we tell what does and doesn’t “belong” in Hawaii? Here is a quiz.

 From the following list, pick the item that best matches your personal prejudice:

  • Any plants or animals that were brought to Hawaii by human beings, including by the Hawaiians, don’t belong here.
  • Any plant or animal brought by the Hawaiians is okay, but those brought by any other culture are bad and don’t belong here. However, alien biocontrol agents, such as insects and fungi which attack plants and animals that don’t belong here, do belong here.
  • Any plants or animals that are useful, beautiful, or in some other way make our lives better belong here, but those that are noxious or poisonous don’t belong here.
  • How do I know?  I’m from New Jersey. I’m just glad to be alive and be living here.

This question is especially important for the invasive species committees and their army of eradicators poisoning, trapping, shooting and infesting our islands to kill species that they have decided “don’t belong.” And now, following their lead, members of the public are killing endangered Monk seals.”

                                                                  The elusive “baseline”

What is Dr. Singer trying to tell us with these rhetorical questions?  He is reminding us that every living creature in the Hawaiian Islands came from somewhere.  When the islands emerged from the sea as volcanoes they were completely barren.  They were slowly populated over millennia by plants and animals brought by the wind, by the sea, by birds and animals.  Humans arrived on the islands over 1,000 years ago when Polynesians came by boat from neighboring islands.  And Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to arrive in the islands in 1778.  Each of these “invasions” brought new creatures.  Many of those creatures are now extinct. The historical food web cannot be recreated because some pieces are missing and some pieces are unknown. So, how can we arrive at a “baseline” which we now attempt to replicate?  It’s a conundrum that illustrates the fundamental absurdity of the entire concept of restoring historical ecology.