Agriculture officials on Grand Cayman are keeping a nervous eye out for signs of the Red Palm Mite, a small but dangerous insect that continues to destroy palm trees on its march across the Caribbean.
The mite, which is thought to have first arrived in the Caribbean in 2003, is now believed to have spread to 12 Caribbean Islands, Venezuela and two counties in Florida, experts attending a conference on invasive species in Miami heard Tuesday.
Department of Agriculture Director Adrian Estwick said the Cayman Islands remains free of the bug and the DoA is doing all it can to keep it that way.
‘It is a pest of concern to us,’ said Mr. Estwick. ‘We have a lot of palm species here; not just the coconut palm but also the Areca and Date palms. There have also been cases (in other countries) where it has affected other species such as banana and plantain trees.’ he continued.
‘Overall, it’s a pest that could have a significant impact across the fields of agriculture and horticulture.’
DoA officers are among those taking part in this week’s conference in Miami. On Tuesday they heard that coconut growers in affected countries are reporting 70 per cent reductions in yield.
US Department of Agriculture Red Palm Mite expert Ms Amy Roda said a study involving experts from the Caribbean and Florida had shown control measure have had little effect to date.
Ms Roda told the conference that Red Palm Mite starts its attack on the small, lower hung leaves on palm trees and then moves to the more mature leaves, causing a yellowing of the leaves of the affected trees.
Officials in affected countries have tried both pesticides and natural predators, Ms Roda said, but neither had met with much success.
She said an increase in tourist trade is causing the Red Palm Mite to be unknowingly moved across national borders in souvenirs made out of palm, particularly green palm.
Mr. Estwick added: ‘We are aware that it could come in on things like palm fronds that are carried by tourists. We are aware of those pathways that allow it entry into the country and we are on the lookout for it.’
Once the mite establishes itself locally it can be very hard to eradicate, Mr. Estwick explained, so the DoA is paying particularly close attention to high risk areas such as ports, nurseries and farms.
The latest warning about the mite comes after CARICOM plant health officials meeting in Guyana in April said the onset of the invasive species could have a devastating effect on many places in the region where coconuts form an important part of economic life. They said the issue had to be dealt with on a continuous basis.