by Tina Lia – Founder, Hawai'i Unites Hawaii Unites
Hawai‘i is widely known as the endangered species capital of the world. Everyone who loves these islands knows that protecting the ‘āina – the land and all its resources – is one of the ways we live with aloha and honor the natural beauty here. Conservation of endemic species is an important focus of these efforts, but when hidden agendas get in the way of critical thinking, the best laid plans of state agency decision-makers can lead to devastating consequences. We’re at the onset of one such plan already being implemented on Maui.
The State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and its multi-agency partnership Birds, Not Mosquitoes plan to release up to 775,992,000 Wolbachia bacteria-infected mosquitoes weekly on the island of Maui’s fragile ecosystems. According to the DLNR’s environmental assessment, these weekly releases would continue for “likely at least 20 years.” The plan is presented as an effort to save endangered native birds from avian malaria transmitted by the southern house mosquito (Culex quinquefasciatus). The lab-altered mosquitoes will be infected with a different strain of the bacteria than the existing wild mosquitoes. The process is called “Incompatible Insect Technique” (IIT), a population suppression method where mating mosquitoes with incompatible Wolbachia strains are anticipated to produce offspring that are not viable.
What is at issue here is the lack of study of the risks of the project, along with the clear conflicts of interest behind the decision to rush the mosquito release plan forward. The public has not been given meaningful participation in the decision-making process, and the agencies involved have railroaded this project through despite overwhelming opposition from the people of these islands. Hawai‘i Unites, has filed a case in environmental court seeking a ruling to require a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). We’re asking for further study of the serious risks to our environment, native birds, wildlife, and public health; and for consideration of alternatives.
This mosquito proposal meant to save native honeycreeper birds may actually lead to their extinction. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that Wolbachia bacteria can increase pathogen infection and can cause mosquitoes to become more capable of transmitting avian malaria and West Nile virus (bird and human). Alarmingly, the potential for increased disease transmitting capability from the combination of the specific bacteria strain infecting the southern house mosquito species being used here has not even been studied prior to release. Our island home is being turned into a testing ground
Know the Facts:
1. This project is presented as an effort to save native birds from avian malaria, but it may actually cause their extinction. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that Wolbachia bacteria can cause increased pathogen infection and can cause mosquitoes to become more capable of transmitting avian malaria and West Nile virus (bird and human).
2. This project is an experiment. The southern house mosquito has never been used before for Wolbachia mosquito stand-alone field release. Up to 134 drone flights per week will drop the mosquitoes. The 59,204-acre Kaua‘i project area and the 64,666-acre East Maui project area are the largest Wolbachia mosquito releases of any kind globally to date. Wolbachia mosquitoes have never been used for conservation purposes before, and their efficacy in remote forest landscapes is unknown.
3. Southern house mosquitoes transmit human diseases, including West Nile virus, elephantiasis, St. Louis encephalitis, and Western equine encephalitis; and they’re a potential vector of Zika virus. They also transmit avian malaria, avian pox, and heartworm. Strains of Wolbachia in parasitic worms play a role in elephantiasis, heartworm, and river blindness.
4. Pathogen screenings for the mosquitoes are unknown. We’ve submitted a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the EPA for the documents regarding what pathogens the mosquitoes are being screened for. Those documents have been withheld as confidential. There’s a lot of secrecy about this project. There are also no known biosecurity protocols for the mosquitoes, and no mitigation plan in place if something goes wrong.
5. EPA guidelines for this biopesticide mosquito product (“DQB Males”) allow for the accidental release of one female for every 250,000 males. On Maui, this means the potential release of over 3,000 females per week. Female mosquitoes bite, breed, and spread disease. Just one accidentally released female can produce 160,000 more females through breeding of the generations in her eight-week lifespan. Just 3 females released in Singapore caused the mosquito population to be replaced with the lab-strain mosquitoes.
6. The Hawaii Department of Health is bringing in two additional mosquitoes, the Aedes aegypti and the Aedes albopictus. Both transmit Zika virus and dengue fever. Aedes aegypti also transmit yellow fever. Approvals are already in place for ground release of lab-reared mosquitoes using cars, trucks, or ATVs to control mosquitoes of public health concern. The Dept. of Health mosquito project has been kept separate from the avian malaria plan, and information has not been disclosed to the public. All islands are being targeted with a statewide EA.
7. The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has a lab in Hawaii that has been funded by unknown sources to build out their insectary where they intend to mass produce these bacteria-infected mosquitoes for release on the islands. They want this production and release program to continue “into perpetuity” (forever). This is a conflict of interest. The DLNR is the proposing agency for the mosquito project, their own board (BLNR) voted to approve it, and the DLNR intends to benefit through this mass production plan.