Growing damage to Hanalei taro farm blamed on Nene

Published On: Apr 27 2012 06:44:45 PM HST   Updated On: Apr 27 2012 05:48:00 PM HST

The state’s multi-million dollar taro industry is being threatened by the success of an endangered water bird breeding program, according to Kauai farmers.

William Haraguchi's family has farmed Hanalei valley for generations.

The crop wasn't always taro; long ago, it was rice, and then other vegetables to feed the island community.

But now he said a threat to taro is keeping him up at night.

"The damage is so bad we have to do something because that is our livelihood," said Haraguchi.

From the Hanalei lookout,  some of the damage can be seen. Some farmers said they don't like to go to the area anymore, because it is too depressing.

"I have got about 20 fields that are damaged," said Rodney Haraguchi of the Taro Growers Association, who also is William's son.

He said the balance in the Valley was upset two years ago, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that farmers could no longer use fences to keep the birds out during key growing times.

The holes in the field show the damage the farmers say comes primarily from the Nene, the coot and the moorhen.

"The Nene would be eating the core , and sometimes the stem too, but mostly the core, and once its rotten it cannot go to market," said Rodney Haraguchi.

"Actually when you get down to it, it is like we are raising the birds. They eat our food and they are resting in the field. I don't know why they are so against the fencing," said William Haraguchi.

Hanauni Pacheco, whose parents and grandparents grew taro, was surprised at seeing how widespread the damage is.

"Seeing the fields for the first time like this has been very disheartening, because I know how hard the farmers work," said Pacheco.

She worries whether a shortage will drive up prices.

"The shortage of taro to the Hawaiians will be detrimental to our luaus if we have no poi," said Pacheco.

Because the endangered birds are protected, refuge managers have suggested turning to other preventive measures such as growing weeds along the border that the waterbirds might prefer and changing the irrigation practices.  But farmers said nothing seems to work.

U.S Fish and Wildlife Service refuge supervisor Barry Stieglitz said  taro farmers  are offered reduced lease rent to stay in the area.

But, some farmers are considering moving out if they can't find some middle ground.

"We can't do anything that's detrimental to the birds," Stieglitz said.

The refuge is preparing a management plan that will address the changing wetlands, but that wont be out until later this year.

"Unfortunately the solutions we arethinking about in that mangement plan are not happening fast enough to to alleviate the problems these farmers are having," said Stieglitz.

While the number of waterbirds is trending up, the refuge lost hundreds of birds due to a botulism outbreak last year.
Farmers say 80 percent of the state's taro is produced in Kauai and most of that is from the Hanalei valley.

Nine farmers are located in the Federal Wildlife Refuge.


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