Protecting our ports: A look at Customs and Border Protection Ag inspections

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - As the Port of Savannah continues to grow and process millions of containers each year, there are more chances for encounters with harmful pests.

Pests aren't the only thing. There are also other items that could have a huge negative impact on the local environment and agricultural industry. Teams of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists look through containers 24/7 in an attempt to stop the threats.

Finding which containers to inspect out of the millions that are processed at the port each year is no small task. Each door they open, there's a chance they'll find a new and potentially harmful stowaway. Wednesday, WTOC got to watch them inspect two containers. In one, they found some seeds that they'll send to a botanist for a closer look.

"This is continuing education. Every day we're out here, we learn more and we see more," said Melanie Pickel, a Supervisory Agriculture Specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Already this year, inspectors found three pests that they've never encountered before at the Port of Savannah, and three more that have never been found at ports in the U.S. On display were some of the finds from 2018.

"These are wood-boring pests, but they're the adults. The second row is the larvae. These are the babies that we generally find inside of the wood packing material," Pickel said while picking up vials containing the pests. "You can kind of read the wood. You can tell whether the wood is juicy and might have a fresh, wood-boring pest in there, or if the wood is very, very dry and probably wouldn't harbor a pest inside, so those are the things we're looking for. Once you've been doing the job for a long time, you can tell, this wood looks fairly fresh, like it just came out. It's moist, so there could be wood-borers in there."

It's not lost on the CBP agriculture specialists how vital their agency's role is and how devastating the effects could be should some of those pests get out into our environment. One insect they're always on the lookout for, for example, is Asian Gypsy Moths. They can cause tens of millions of dollars in damage by destroying a wide variety of tree species.

"It certainly drives us every day and it's why we come to work because we know that what we're doing makes a difference. It matters, and we know that the interception of something as tiny as a seed or a pest could ultimately have severe economic and health ramifications for not only our communities, but the nation," said Lisa Beth Brown, Area Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Brown says they use a risk-based strategy to find containers they inspect, and look at things like seasons in partner countries to weigh the risk of pests and other harmful things being on board.

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