Fumigating the Polynesian Voyagers, 1995

From Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, by Alan Burdick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 65-66:

In 1995 three Hawaiian canoes sailed south to the Society Islands, met a contingent of three other South Pacific canoes, then sailed to the Marquesas and north again to me Big Island of Hawaii, for the first time retracing the original route of discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.

This historic voyage encountered only one significant problem. Three days before the canoes were due to arrive home, the crew radioed Honolulu with news that they were suffering the painful bite of some undetected insect. Entomologists were consulted. The suspects were narrowed to three: the nono, a tiny, vicious blackfly that plagues beaches of the Marquesas and doomed those islands’ resorts; the punkie midge, a no-see-um half the size of the nono that also haunts the Marquesas; and a biting midge known in French Polynesia as the white beach nono. The first is native to the Marquesas; the latter two arrived in Polynesia sometime between 1920 and 1950. All three are functionally identical—with mouths like scissors, they bite holes in the victim’s skin, producing welts that if scratched can quickly fester. A single nono fly can inflict five thousand bites in an hour. After securing a blood meal, the fly retreats to a crevice in any nearby decaying organic matter—waterlogged wood a coconut husk, the hull of a Polynesian voyaging canoe—to reproduce. Its larvae emerge several days later to begin the cycle anew. With these facts in mind, Honolulu newspapers treated readers to several days of midge coverage, disagreeing only as to whether the midges posed a worse threat to the tourist industry than the brown tree snake, or merely an equivalent one. Cynics whispered of a midge conspiracy, of midges planted aboard the canoes by an environmental group eager to publicize the dangers of alien species in Hawaii.

Riding a strong headwind, a biting midge can cross fifty miles of open ocean. To forestall such an event, and despite prime sailing conditions the six voyaging canoes were ordered to a halt some two hundred miles south-southwest of Hawaii’s Big Island, Hawai’i. The following morning, after much wrangling over which government agency should take responsibility for a nuisance insect that is neither an agricultural pest nor strictly speaking, a public-health threat, and which in any event now sat in international waters, a Coast Guard plane dropped thirty-six aerosol cans of pyrethrin, an insecticide made from daisies, into what were now heavy seas. The canoes’ holds were emptied, clothes and equipment sprayed with disinfectant, the hulls scrubbed four times with seawater, the sails keelhauled. Everything organic was tossed overboard: religions carvings, palm-frond baskets, breadfruit seedlings wrapped in coconut husks, and traditional foods like sweet potato, taro leaf patties, and poi—which crew members perhaps were happy to see go, as they later confessed a preference for sausage and Spam. Inspectors from the Hawaii Department of Health then boarded the canoes and sprayed everything again. A series of triumphal celebrations had been planned to mark the voyage’s end. Instead, the canoes were escorted into Hilo Harbor, sprayed once more, and enclosed in fumigation tents. A crowd of two dozen, including several customs and immigrations officials, greeted them.

Health and agriculture inspectors still do not know what sort of midge they nearly encountered; the cleaning, spraying, scrubbing, and fumigation had left no trace of them. Other survivors were discovered, however, including four species of fly, two species of ant, a cockroach, two spiders, a book louse, a parasitic wasp, a beetle, several snails, some live shrimps, a gecko, two species of eye gnat, and a scale insect that in some parts of the world is considered a serious agricultural pest. Some time afterward the chief of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture was heard expressing nostalgia for the days when state inspectors could walk down the aisles of arriving aircraft and fumigate freely, as they still do in New Zealand. As for the canoes, they reached their destinations. The Hawaiian crews sailed to warm homecomings on Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. The Cook Islanders disembarked, showered, and dried off with one hundred and fifty donated towels. The Tahitian voyagers, though they had a fine canoe, never arrived; in fact, they never embarked. They had failed to apply for U.S. visas, and were gently advised to stay home.

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Filed under Hawai'i, migration, Polynesia, science

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