HONOLULU (KHON) – Millions of mosquitoes could soon be released on the Hawaiian island of Maui to prevent several native bird species from going extinct.
On Thursday, National Park Service officials announced they would move forward with a plan to reduce the transmission of avian malaria to threatened and endangered forest birds by suppressing invasive mosquito populations. As NPS explained, the idea is to use an incompatible insect technique (IIT) which consists of repeatedly releasing incompatible male mosquitoes into the wild to reduce the reproductive potential of female mosquitoes in the project area.
The environmental assessment for the project was available for public review between Dec. 6, 2022, and Jan. 23, 2023, with a total of 853 pieces of correspondence received.
On Friday, the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources heard emotional testimony, and unanimously voted to move forward with the IIT plan as well.
Experts explained that female mosquitoes have been transmitting avian malaria to Hawaii’s native birds for decades, and now, as temperatures rise, mosquitoes are moving higher up mountains and infecting the birds.
Bret Mossman, an avian technician for the Hawaii Island Natural Area Reserve System, testified on Friday, saying he’s seen the damage these mosquitos can do first-hand.
“As someone who works with these birds every day I’ve seen the impacts that the disease spreads by these mosquitoes; maimed limbs, missing eyes, even losing their bills because of lesions from pox, and a slow decline of even the largest and healthiest birds to malaria to the point where the birds can no longer move, and eventually die,” Mossman said.
“This is emotional… I have personally witnessed the catastrophic decline of our endemic honeycreepers species,” claimed Lisa Crampton, of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project. “They are now on the 650 akohekohe and 140 akakiki here on Kauai and nowhere else in the world, and the situation is no better on Maui.”
Discussions about this plan first began in 2016. The idea is to release a different species of male mosquitoes into the wild, which would stop the female mosquitoes from reproducing and transmitting the disease to the birds.
“When two mosquitoes have an incompatible bacteria and they lay eggs, they don’t hatch,” explained Jin Harlow of Haleakala National Park.
Harlow added that female mosquito rates could decline in a matter of weeks.
“These released mosquitoes propose no risk to human health, only male mosquitoes will be released as part of this project, and male mosquitoes do not bite humans, they don’t bite animals, and they don’t transmit diseases to humans or people,” explained Harlow.
On Friday, BLNR voted to move the plan forward and they stated there’s no time to wait as bird species are dwindling at a rapid rate.
Chris Farmer, the Hawaii program director of the American Bird Conservancy, estimates that the akohekohe and kiwikiu could go extinct in the next decade, the kiwikiu as early as 2027, with only about 135 left in the world.
As Farmer explained, “All it takes is one bite from the mosquito, and many of these honeycreepers will die.”
Some who oppose the plan believe more studies need to be done before releasing the mosquitoes in the wild.
One BLNR member disputed this notion, pointing to over a dozen other states that have used similar tactics.
After the emotional testimony, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang said she found the environmental assessment to be adequate.
“What we do know is if we don’t act, [the birds] will not be here and it becomes moot and then it becomes an irresponsibility on our part,” said Chang.
The plans will next go to the Environmental Protection Agency for final approval, and project leaders hope they can start releasing mosquitoes this summer.