By Katie Worth

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Dec. 23) - Since September, a swiftly spreading fungus has killed hundreds of betel nut trees in Merizo, and the rest of Guam's betel nut palms could die in the coming months if action isn't taken fast, agriculture experts said yesterday.

The fungus is believed to be the same one responsible for the extermination of the entire betel nut population in Saipan eight years ago, said University of Guam plant pathology professor George Wall. Cutting down and burning the infected plants is the only way to protect those that are not yet infected, Wall said. He said a fungicide to protect non-infected plants exists, but there is none available on Guam yet.

Department of Agriculture Director Paul Bassler said the department is encouraging anyone with a betel nut palm on their property to watch for the symptoms of fungal infection, such as lesions on the leaves, dead young leaves or deterioration of the green part of the plant at the base of the leaves. He said if those signs are spotted, residents should contact the agriculture department.

Betel nut, or pugua in Chamorro, can be grown all over the island, said Peter Barcinas, a cooperative extension agent for UOG's Community Systems Program. It is mostly harvested in the south for sale. Barcinas, who works with farmers and also is the son of a betel nut farmer, said some farmers in the south have reported massive deaths of pugua palms, and expect their pugua revenues to drop.

He said the problem has the potential to wipe out the entire betel nut farming industry on Guam for years, as it takes some time for betel nut trees to grow and begin producing fruit again.

Barcinas said his father had about 200 betel nut trees on his farm in Merizo, but many of those have died.

"All you need is the right conditions for it to just spread like the SARS epidemic -- it just keeps going," he said.

So far, Wall said, the fungus has been identified only on betel nut trees in Merizo, but he said the fungus spreads quickly. The fungus creates microscopic spores which are easily blown around and dispersed in the wind and rain, Wall said. After they are infected, betel nut palms usually die within weeks.

Fortunately, recent prevailing winds have been blowing from the northeast, which means most of the spores have been blown out to the ocean and not northward through the island, he said.

Agriculture department biologist Russell Campbell said over the next few days, the department will survey betel nut palms all over the island to see how far the fungus may have spread and try to estimate how many betel nut palms have been killed.

He said it is possible the fungus came in from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, perhaps even in someone's pocket.

The husk of the betel nut fruit can carry the fungus, he said, so it is possible that someone accidentally brought the disease in on a nut they intended to chew, and the fungus managed to infect a tree in Merizo and spread from there.

Campbell said the situation looks bad for the island's betel nuts, but there's a chance the island can avoid an annihilation of its pugua.

"We're going to try to eliminate it if possible," Wall said. "It's probably already killed hundreds and hundreds of trees. ... We're just going to try to inform the public of the symptoms so we can stop or slow the spread of the disease."

December 23, 2003

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