Plan to use bioengineered mosquitoes to save Hawaiian birds draws fire
A Hawaii nonprofit says the state's plan to curb avian malaria hasn't been fully vetted for risks to the environment and other species, including humans.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, May 9, 2023
HONOLULU (CN) — An effort to save Hawaii’s endangered honeycreepers and other native birds may face a setback as conservationists object to a plan to release billions of biopesticide mosquitoes into the rainforests of Maui to combat avian malaria.
In a lawsuit filed Monday, Hawaii Unites, a Maui-based environmental conservation nonprofit, sued the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and its executive Board of Land and Natural Resources claiming violations of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act.
According to Hawaii Unites, the agencies did not properly prepare an environmental impact statement that addresses the possible risks of releasing a non-native species on the delicate Maui ecosystem. The group claims the agencies deliberately denied the nonprofit and community members a chance to speak out against the Birds, Not Mosquitoes project.
“The final environmental assessment (FEA) states that the experiment will have no significant impact on the environment. However, documentation and studies from several sources (including government agencies) confirm that the experiment may not even work for its intended purpose and has the potential for significant environmental impacts,” Hawaii Unites says in its lawsuit.
The Birds, Not Mosquitoes project — a collaborative proposal by the defendants and other government, private and nonprofit organizations including U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the University of Hawaii, and the American Bird Conservancy, among others — aims to save native wildlife from avian malaria.
Researchers have long identified the disease as a major contributor to the decline and eventual extinction of many of the island’s endemic populations. As with many other diseases, mosquitoes have proven to be a significant vector in the transmission of avian malaria between the birds. The invasive southern house mosquito is currently the biggest threat to Hawaii’s birds, who have no natural immunity to the disease they transmit.
The Birds, Not Mosquitoes program looks to curb the mosquito populations by implementing the “incompatible insect technique” as a form of birth control. The technique utilizes mosquitoes infected in a lab with the naturally occurring Wolbachia bacteria, which affects insect reproduction. The infected pests are unable to produce viable offspring with either unafflicted insects or those with a different strain of the bacteria. According to the program, only male Wolbachia mosquitoes, which do not bite or feed on blood, would be released into the Maui forests.
According to the lawsuit, the project would result in potentially 40 billion mosquitoes released per year over 20 years. Hawaii Unites contends that the current environmental assessment is incomplete and refuses to fully consider the possible risks to the environment or to other species, including humans.
The nonprofit says the proposal and subsequent assessments do not address biosecurity, accidental release of female mosquitoes or possible EPA violations in transporting the infected organisms to the islands. The group also notes that the introduction of the mosquitoes may interfere with Native Hawaiian cultural practices that require clean, healthful environments and that the drones intended to deposit the insects may harm nesting birds and create unnecessary noise.
Hawaii Unites says there are alternatives to the planned technique, which has not been implemented to the project’s scale before.
“This plan is an experiment on our island home. There are serious risks, and the outcome is admittedly unknown,” the group says in its lawsuit.
Hawaii Unites and its director, Tina Lia, who is also a plaintiff, also say that the state agencies have refused to take community response into account when they approved the project in March.
“Rather than acknowledge and address the organization’s concerns, the BLNR has acted in a consistently dismissive and disruptive manner towards this testimony,” the plaintiffs say in the lawsuit. “The rights of Hawaii Unites, of the organization’s supporters, and of the public, to open governmental processes have been infringed upon by the BLNR in their effort to silence discussion about the risks and impacts of the project.”
A representative for the Department of Land and Natural Resources declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Birds, Not Mosquitoes was first developed as an alternative to chemical insecticides and impractical traps. The project emphasizes that speed is of the essence to save the birds, which are at high risk for extinction. The islands once were host to over 115 endemic bird species and around 60% of species have become extinct since human colonization. Only 17 Hawaiian honeycreeper species remain from over 50 different species.
The scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, otherwise known as the ʻiʻiwi, is one of the island’s most distinct and well-known birds and was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2017. The ‘i’iwi was only able to recently gain critical habitat protections in 2022 after intervention from the Center for Biological Diversity.
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