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Hawaiʻi Unites sues DLNR over mosquito suppression plan to save native birds

Hawaiʻi Unites

A local environmental nonprofit has sued the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Board of Land and Natural Resources over its mosquito suppression plan to reduce avian malaria at Haleakalā National Park.

Hawaiʻi Unites, the volunteer organization in opposition to the state's biopesticide plan, argues that DLNR did not prepare an environmental impact statement for the project.

However, DLNR officials note that they collaborated with the National Park Service for an environmental assessment in December 2022.

The Park Service found that there would be no significant impact and that an EIS would not be needed. BLNR approved the plan in March.

The project would release male mosquitoes infected with a Wolbachia bacteria strain that would make them infertile. When they mate with a female mosquito, scientists say the eggs will never hatch.

This method has been successful for human health viruses like Dengue and Zika, but has never been used to reduce avian malaria.

Members of Hawaiʻi Unites say they are worried the release could increase the spread of avian malaria.

Oneparticular study from 2014 found that mosquitoes with Wolbachia were more likely to transmit avian malaria than those without the bacteria. The study also mentioned that the outcome could be drastically different in the natural world compared to lab-bred mosquitoes.

“The East Maui project area is over 89 times the size of the largest Wolbachia mosquito release area globally to date, and the southern house mosquito has never even been used before with this technique for stand-alone field release,” said Tina Lia, the founder and president of Hawaiʻi Unites.

Forest bird coordinator with Haleakalā National Park Chris Warren explained that mosquitoes already in the park are "highly susceptible to malaria."

"I think it's like 85% to 97%, were susceptible to infection and transmission. So those are the mosquitoes that are out there right now," Warren said. "What we said in our response to this question in the finding of no significant impact from the EA is that it's improbable that susceptibility could even increase above that."

The project to suppress the mosquito population and reduce avian malaria will move forward despite the lawsuit. Infertile mosquitoes could be released as early as this month.

To read the environmental assessment, click here. For the Hawaiʻi Unites lawsuit, click here.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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