A protest in front of the Department of Agriculture in Hilo is scheduled this afternoon over the state’s plan to introduce a mosquito-control approach to Hawai’i in an effort to save the endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper species.
On June 28, the state’s Board of Agriculture granted a request by Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state Department of Health to import inoculated mosquitoes for mosquito control to protect native birds and human health.
The proposal considered by the BOA was the listing of three mosquitoes species, and approval of permit conditions which would allow for import and releases of incompatible males of one species, the southern house mosquito.
The mosquito-control approach called Incompatible Insect Technique, or IIT, uses a naturally occurring bacteria, wolbachia, already present in mosquitoes in Hawai’i to control these invasive pests, DOA officials stated.
DOA officials say there is a misconception circulating that the Hawai’i Department of Agriculture is importing the mosquitoes, which they say is not so.
“What the board did was to place the species of mosquitoes on the Restricted Animals List – Part A, which will allow DLNR and DOH to import those mosquitoes under specific permit conditions,” officials stated.
DOA officials say the this issue has gone through several rounds of discussion and review by experts, first with the Subcommittee on Entomology and with the Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals before being heard by the Board of Agriculture.
During the June BOA meeting, several people tested for and against the mosquito approach. Members of the community expressed concern saying there was no environmental impact study conducted prior to BOA’s decision.
“I say No!!!!!!!!! until there is a full environmental impact study done…” stated Margot Robinson in written testimony. “Please think of the keiki, our health, our birds and animals. Don’t Play GOD.”
Kristina Ammon wrote into the BOA stating her strong opposition to the introduction of the proposed mosquito strain that she says includes vertical gene transfer.
“The possible negative side effects of gene alteration and unforeseen damage to a delicate ecosystem make it not worth the hoped benefits,” Ammon stated.
According to DLNR, two different environmental assessments are being completed at this time, one for East Maui and one for Kaua’i. The East Maui EA is closest to public release and should be available for public comment in approximately two months. A statewide EA will also follow. Each of these assessments are being completed by independent environmental consulting firms.
“Landscape scale releases of incompatible male southern house mosquitoes will not occur until the environmental assessments are completed,” DLNR officials stated. “Small scale trials which will allow DLNR to provide the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) the information it requires to complete product labeling for this tool, learn about how to ship the mosquitoes, the ratio of release of incompatible male, and improve trapping techniques could move forward sooner.”
DLNR officials emphasized mosquito-control approach doesn’t involve genetic modification or genetic engineering of the mosquito or the bacteria.
“Given the vast majority of public testimony was submitted in opposition to the release of genetically modified organisms (GMO) mosquitoes and/or mosquitoes that had undergone genetic engineering (GE), it did not reflect the facts of the project under consideration,” DLNR officials stated.
DLNR stated the IIT approach using bacteria does not involve genetic modification or genetic engineering of any kind.
“It is not just the DLNR that supports the use of this approach, many other state, federal and private partner organizations such as US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Hawai’i Department of Health, The American Bird Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species participate in a broader working group entitled “Birds Not Mosquitoes” with the goal of saving endangered forest birds,” DLNR stated.
There was also several written testimonies in support of the request. Katherine McClure, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo submitted written testimony expressing her support.
“Avian malaria is the single-most pressing threat to the persistence of native Hawaiian honeycreepers, and without the rapid implementation of the southern house mosquito control techniques using Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes, threatened and endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper species will undoubtedly be lost to extinction in the decades to come,” McClure stated.
DLNR officials stated those who supported the request liked how targeted the approach was, and how it does not use the use of chemicals.
“(The approach) Only uses male mosquitoes, which don’t bite and only feed on nectar and are short-lived…” DLNR stated.
The state agency added that the use of the IIT male mosquitoes for mosquito control will be highest priority in the endangered forest bird critical habitat on Kaua’i and East Maui where native forest birds are still surviving in upper elevation native forests.
“With changing climate conditions, invasive southern house mosquitoes are able to move further up the mountains, and the forest bird populations could crash irreversibly in as little as the next two years,” officials stated.