Keevin Minami speaks pretty good coquí. He whistles into the rainy night and listens for a reply. Whistle, wait. Whistle, wait. Nothing. It could be a false alarm— people often mistake the twitter of greenhouse frogs or even the chirping of their smoke detectors for the sound of the coquí frog. But this report of a possible coquí in a residential Kane‘ohe neighborhood is credible enough that Minami keeps at it. He wants to be sure. Whistle, wait.
Big Island residents already know what’s at stake. Coquí frogs first came to Hawai‘i in 1988, probably through Hilo as stowaways in imported potted plants. With no natural predators and a lush habitat like that of their native Puerto Rico, they went viral, spreading throughout East Hawai‘i from Volcano to Waipi‘o. They pullulated and proliferated in densities never before seen—or heard. Now East Hawai‘i’s nights are raucous with the sound of millions of lovelorn coquí, a din as loud as a lawnmower. Resistance has thus far been futile.
O‘ahu, though, still has a chance. As the land vertebrate specialist for the Hawai‘i State Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch (PQ for short), Minami’s one of the people fighting to keep O‘ahu coquí-free, and he’s done a good job so far, helping to eradicate five populations that had become established on the island; Minami himself has caught more than two hundred coquí on O‘ahu over the past seven years. You might not realize it, but the comparative quiet of nights in Waimanalo and Wahiawa and even Waikiki is aggressively protected. “They’d be all over the place by now if we hadn’t jumped on it,” says Minami.
But PQ isn’t merely a frog squad. It’s in charge of Hawai‘i’s overall biosecurity; that is, keeping out what shouldn’t be here and controlling what already is. Many are plant diseases and pests, like ‘öhi‘a rust or European corn borer, which could affect Hawai‘i’s native forests or its agricultural industry (thus the reason PQ will confiscate the oranges you forgot were in your carryon). But despite the agency’s name, Plant Quarantine is also responsible for dealing with prohibited non-livestock animals— “the oddballs,” as Branch Manager Carol Okada calls them, like the raccoon that boarded a Matson container ship in Long Beach, California and wound up in Honolulu last New Year’s Eve, or the brown tree snakes that slither onto ships and planes from Guam. It’s PQ’s herculean task to inspect inbound cargo — about fourteen million items a year—for stowaways and hitchhikers. And if anything does make it through the not-too-fine filter of the inspection regime, they go after it. They trap alien species at loose in the wild. They bust scofflaws who smuggle in banned pets — everything from snakes to scorpions to Bengal cats. “It’s amazing what people bring in,” says Okada, who’s been with the branch for twenty-six years. “I’ve seen all kinda weird stuff.”