A deadly fungus is now driving Hawaii’s Ohia trees to extinction, and severely disrupting the rest of the ecosystem as well.
The infectious disease, which authorities refer to as “ohia wilt” or “rapid ohia death”, was confirmed last year as the primary factor contributing to the dwindling number of ohia trees in Puna.
More recently, new cases have also been identified in Kona and Ka’u, suggesting therefore that the pathogenic fungi have managed to migrate, most likely aided by unsuspecting humans.
Namely, the organisms probably remained stuck on the clothes, tools and gear of those who crossed ohia forests, and were afterwards transported in other far-off regions, eventually infecting other branches and leaves.
Authorities are also investigating the possibility that insects were also instrumental in allowing the fungus to reach several islands in such a short while.
The disease has been proven to be extremely hazardous to ohia lehua trees (metrosideros polymorpha), preventing their vascular system from functioning correctly, so as to carry essential nutrients throughout the plant.
This has caused the iconic Hawaiian trees to die in around a half of the confirmed cases, with some areas experiencing even more alarming declines, surpassing 90%.
Overall, the destruction has spread across around 600 acres, and this has severely disrupted water supplies, since the trees’ roots can absorb significant amounts of water. It has also affected highly threatened bird species which rely on the trees as their natural habitats and as a source of nourishing nectar.
Given this extensive damage, authorities are currently trying to curb the contamination, and to identify the main source of the outbreak, by conducting aerial surveys of the most affected areas.
During a news conference which was hosted at the Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center on Wednesday, December 23, the fungal disease was more thoroughly debated, and measures meant to reduce the growing devastation have been proposed.
Similar discussions have also been held in Honolulu, during a meeting bringing together representatives of the Department of Agriculture and of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife at the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
So far, the shipping of ohia items between Kona and other Hawaiian islands has been halted, so as to minimize the risk of spreading the disease, but some have warned that this isn’t enough, since humans can still carry the pathogen during their travels.
Officials, in partnership with the Cooperative Extension Service (affiliated with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources), have also created a rack card, as well as a brochure in order to provide advice regarding the main signs of this fungal disease, and effective ways of combating it.
According to Lisa Keith, research plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, all the recommendations will have to be followed with great care, on a long-term basis, since the pathogens can survive for up to 12 months.
Around $700,000 will be dedicated in order to save ohia trees from this highly perilous disease, half of the funds having been offered by various foundations, and the rest by federal and state regulators.
It is hoped that more money will be raised, so as to hire more experts capable of addressing the fungal crisis as effectively as possible.
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