At about 6 p.m. last Friday, Dec. 30, Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa stopped by the nursery located directly behind the Island Surf Building in Kihei. It was to be a cordial visit, but he wasn’t there to buy plants. At the end of a busy week right before New Year’s, Arakawa dropped by for a face-to-face talk with the nursery owner about coqui frogs.
For almost the last four years, coqui frogs—by far the loudest and most notorious invasive species currently building a home on Maui—have infested that nursery. They’ve apparently hitched rides on plants the nursery imported from elsewhere—a common threat facing nurseries throughout Hawai’i.
The point of Arakawa’s visit was to convince the owner to let members of the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) into his nursery to try to get rid of the frogs. That seems to have happened.
“We had a very pleasant conversation,” said Arakawa. “But there’s no formal agreement. We’re just trying to get a [spraying] program together.”
That it took Arakawa’s personal intervention on behalf of MISC shows how bad relations between the county and the nursery have gotten. Official county notes and correspondence concerning the nursery show that since 2002 county officials and MISC have patiently tried to get Dale Castleton, the nursery owner, to get rid of the frogs. These notes and documents show that at first Castleton was helpful, but in recent months he’d taken a hard line, insisting that the frogs are “beneficial” to his nursery and the environment as a whole and refusing to let MISC spray for frogs.
For local residents, the sounds of incessant coqui frog chirping throughout the night have long passed the unbearable point.
“They’ve had frogs there for years,” said Kihei resident and community activist Buck Joiner. “It’s infuriating that he won’t take responsibility.”
Castleton politely refused to comment for this story—saying he was “involved with some legal issues” surrounding the nursery—unless I submitted written questions to him that he would then forward to his attorney. When I said my preference was to conduct a straight interview and asked to speak directly to his attorney, Castleton declined to name his attorney and hung up on me.
A MISC manager also didn’t want to comment on the matter.
“I’m very hesitant to talk about that with the press,” said Teya Penniman, the MISC manager who’s spent a lot of time dealing with the nursery. “Our focus is on cooperation. He has been cooperative in the past. An ongoing issue with us is to work with different nurseries. We stand ready to help anyone.”
A county official familiar with the Castleton matter referred to coqui frogs as the county’s “number one target invasive species.” The males are famous for their nocturnal 90-100 decibel mating chirp, which will last long into the night. Pack them into, say, a 3,000-square-foot plant nursery, and they’ll sound like a weird alien jam session.
“From an economic perspective, they lower property values,” said Penniman. “That’s happening on the Big Island. It’s also a quality of life issue. A lot of people find them extremely annoying.”
As a non-native species, the coqui have no natural predator in Hawai’i. For that reason, they’re able to multiply quickly. They also eat virtually all the native insects around here, except for mosquitoes. There’s also the hypothetical concern that should snakes ever get introduced to Hawai’i, the coqui could provide a more than adequate food source for them.
“The nursery industry should be concerned about having other countries and states getting shipments [of frogs] from Hawai’i,” said Penniman. “A nursery in San Diego has an infestation, and it’s believed to have come from Hawai’i. This isn’t just about us—they impact on other places as well.”
For these reasons, coqui frogs are illegal to own, breed, sell, import or export in the State of Hawai’i. Hence MISC’s interest in Castleton’s nursery.
It’s an interest that the local daily paper doesn’t seem to share. Or at least not anymore.
Readers of The Maui News got a tantalizing glimpse of the Castleton controversy last month in its letters to the editor section, which offers readers an open forum to publish their opinions on any subject, regardless of whether they’ve appeared in the News. On Dec. 5, 2005, the paper ran a brief letter from Jackie Ross of Kahului under the headline “Coqui frogs continue to be alive and noisy at a Kihei nursery.” In her letter, Ross blasted “the nursery on the corner of Kanani and South Kihei roads” for allegedly not “taking care of its coqui frog problem.” Ross added that she’d contacted MISC and was told “that they are very aware of the problem and requested numerous times that this property owner take care of it.”
But then 11 days letter, the News completely backpedaled. On Dec. 16, the paper ran a “Clarification” that seemed to say all was fine and dandy between MISC and Castleton’s nursery. “[A] letter to the editor in the Dec. 5, 2005, issue of The Maui News contained statements regarding the nursery at Auhana Road in Kihei that may have led some readers to reach erroneous conclusions about the nursery and coqui frogs,” read the clarification. It went on to say that “The nursery states that it takes particular care to ensure that all plants shipped from its premises are from coqui frogs” and that the nursery “also states that it has worked with every interested federal, state and county agency to deal with the coqui frog problem.”
Infuriated at what he deemed a complete whitewash of the nursery’s coqui frog problem, Kihei
activist Joiner emailed his own letter to the paper. He blasted the paper’s clarification and called on the nursery “to “grow up, accept responsibility, get rid of the coqui frogs, and write your own letters.” Shortly thereafter, Joiner said he got a call from the News, saying they wouldn’t be printing his letter or any other letter or story on Castleton’s nursery.
“At this time, we have no plans to do a story on a specific offender,” Maui News City Editor Edwin Tanji emailed me on Dec. 30, 2005. “We have been told of a number of businesses that are failing to deal with coqui infestations in their operations; would you consider it fair to focus on just one? We have had stories about nursery operations that have programs to prevent coqui infestations.”
Tanji’s explanation is reasonable but misses two important points. While it’s true that a number of nurseries around Maui had and continue to have coqui frog infestations, a county official familiar with the controversy says Castleton’s is the only nursery that hasn’t been working with the Maui Invasive Species Committee to control it. The official also said that negotiations hadn’t deteriorated with any other Maui nursery to the point that Mayor Arakawa felt it prudent and necessary to become personally involved.
One of the quirks about the battle between the county and Castleton is that no one really knows what to call his nursery. There’s no sign posted on the grounds beyond “No Trespassing,” and no listing in the phone book. A business registration filed with the Hawai’i Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs seems to show the name as “Hula Girl Garden and Gallery,” but that filing expired in June, 2001.
A timeline of MISC actions concerning the nursery show Castleton did cooperate—at first. In 2002, he agreed to let MISC officials spray caffeine in his nursery to kill the frogs. It didn’t work. Two years later, MISC went back and sprayed citric acid. The infestation continued. Then talks stalled.
By May of this year, Mayor Arakawa asked Castleton for a face-to-face meeting. On May 23, 2005, Castleton and his attorney met Arakawa in the mayor’s office. Things seemed to go well, with Castleton apparently agreeing to “cooperate.”
The next month, on June 19, county and MISC officials visited Castleton’s nursery. The MISC timeline shows that Castleton agreed to let the committee staff to work on eradicating from his smaller parcel. He would also allow MISC staff to inspect his plants. They talked of a written agreement, which Castleton said he’d have to go over with his attorney. But Castleton apparently still had concerns.
“During this meeting, Mr. Castleton asserted that he believes the coquis are beneficial to his nursery and the environment,” the timeline notes. “He also expressed frustration about negative publicity associated with frogs and his nursery and attributed negative publicity to MISC and/or the Mayor’s Office.”
By September 2005, according to the MISC timeline, Castleton still hadn’t signed onto the MISC agreement. The frogs were still on the nursery property. Once again, Arakawa intervened.
“Recently I learned that [MISC] believes that efforts to collaborate with you on coqui frog control on your property are at ‘an impasse,’” Arakawa wrote Castleton on Sept. 6, 2005. I find this information disturbing, given your stated agreement during the meeting in my office on May 23, 2005 to cooperate with MISC on control efforts.”
The back and forth continued into October. Meanwhile, no action took place on the supposed agreement between MISC and Castleton.
On Sept. 23, Sanford J. Langa, Castleton’s Wailuku-based attorney, responded to the mayor, writing that the proposed agreement was problematic and questioning the “organization and status” of MISC. On Oct. 10, Arakawa responded to Langa in writing, explaining MISC’s 10-year history of working within the University of Hawai’i to eradicate coquis from island nurseries.
“I am glad to hear that Mr. Castleton is still interested in cooperating with the County to promote environmental health,” Arakawa wrote. “However, I am concerned with the time which has passed since our meeting in May, and urge you to assist him in swiftly reaching an agreement with MISC to partner with them to control the frog infestation at your client’s properties in Kihei.”
Ntohing much happened after that, according to the MISC timeline and an interview with a county official familiar with the controversy. Then Arakawa made his personal visit to the nursery on Dec. 30, and shortley thereafter Castleton agreed to let MISCback onto his property.
What happens next is hard to say. A few nights ago I drove to Castleton’s nursery and parked outside. Coqui chirping filled the warm night air. After nearly four years of stalemate, it looks like county invasive species officials may finally get a chance to end that symphony of irritation. Maybe.
“The proof will be in actually getting the project going and doing the eradication,” said Arakawa. MTW