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Banana disease continues to spread on Big Island

  • COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE This 2004 photo shows a banana plant that has banana bunchy-top virus.

HILO >> Farmers on Hawaii’s Big Island are worried after a disease affecting banana plants was found north of Hilo despite a quarantine effort.

The banana bunchy top virus, which stunts the growth of banana plants and deforms their fruit, was first found on Oahu in 1989 and arrived in Kailua-Kona the next decade, reported the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. And it’s still spreading.

Farmers are now worried it could end up in the deep gulches of Hamakua Coast, making it even more difficult to contain.

“If it gets in the gulches, it’s over,” said banana farmer Lynn Richardson, who said he finds infected plants every week on his 6-acre farm in Kurtistown.

“Getting down there is a challenge in itself,” said Kamran Fujimoto, noxious weed specialist for the Department of Agriculture. “And, in some parts, the bananas are probably growing along the side of a bank. You probably can’t even get to them.”

Fujimoto said the disease has become more prevalent in Hilo over the last few years. Even if it doesn’t reach the gulches, Fujimoto said growing bananas in Hilo could become challenging.

“In heavily infested places like Oahu, they are having a hard time growing bananas in their backyards,” he said.

The remedy for the bunchy top virus is to spray plants with insecticide to kill the disease-spreading aphids, and then destroy the plant, often by injecting herbicide. But it only limits the damage.

On a recent morning, Richardson, the Kurtistown farmer, used a screwdriver to poke a hole in a plant with signs of the disease and injected the Roundup herbicide. He said he knows he’ll be doing the same next week, because there are wild and homegrown infected plants surround his farm for 1,000 feet in every direction.

“This year, I’ve cut down 200,” said Richardson, the Kurtistown farmer. “I can’t replace them all, so there will be losses.”

The Department of Agriculture introduced a quarantine of the plants on the Big Island in 1999, but couldn’t contain the disease. Fujimoto said the program has long been disbanded, and the state has switched to the elimination strategy.

But they can’t force people to kill their plants without a court order.

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