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Board approves importing of mosquitoes for population control

Effort aims to reduce spread of avian malaria among endangered native birds

After a mix of testimony, the state Board of Agriculture on Tuesday approved a proposal to list, allow importation and establish permit conditions for field release of millions of incompatible male mosquitoes in an effort to protect Hawaii’s native forest birds.

The three mosquito species permitted for importation — all of which are already present in Hawaii — include the southern house mosquito (Culex quinquefasciatus), which is responsible for sharp declines in the populations of many honeycreeper species on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island, as well as the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), which can transmit human diseases.

“Mahalo nui kakou for sharing your mana’o and for supporting the Birds, Not Mosquitoes project and the Hawaiian honeycreepers,” the organization, which is a partnership between state and federal agencies and private nonprofits, said in a Facebook post. “We were moved by and grateful for the large amount of supportive testimony from many of you.”

This decision will allow the Birds, Not Mosquitoes project and its partners to proceed with a large conservation effort using male mosquitoes injected with strains of Wolbachia bacteria, according to the post.

Honeycreepers are found nowhere else in the world, but are dramatically declining due to avian malaria transmitted by mosquitoes, according to The Nature Conservancy, which is a nonprofit partner in the project.

“The listing in approvals are critical steps to implement mosquito suppression activities that will offer our endangered forest birds a fighting chance against avian malaria, which threaten them with imminent extinction,” the organization said in written testimony Tuesday.

The release will occur over large landscapes in Maui and Kauai by 2024 as a way to reduce mosquito populations threatening native forest birds.

“While I do like the general idea of this approach, versus using outright genetically modified mosquitoes, I do think that there are legitimate concerns about this method,” said Terry Murakami in written testimony.

Faith Chase of Farmers Voice Hawaii objected to the project, too, saying via written testimony that there has not been enough studies to conduct this “absurd distraction to nature’s balance.”

“There must be a re-approach to the way in which we care for our watersheds,” Chase said.

Kristina Ammon also opposed the introduction of incompatible male mosquitoes, noting that the possible unforeseen negative side effects could “damage a delicate ecosystem” and “make it not worth the hoped benefits.”

Despite the heavy opposition, many residents and officials still applauded this project slated for East Maui, which would be the first time that the incompatible insect technique would be used for conservation work to save endangered species.

“This proposed project aligns with Maui County Council’s efforts to recognize the importance of endangered species and participate in multilevel collaborations to protect these creatures from extinction,” Council Member Kelly King said. “Native species have shaped our island’s culture and play critical roles in our ecosystems.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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