HONOLULU (KHON2) — Millions of mosquitoes could soon be released in East 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.  

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NPS said it would 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.  

NPS stated they found no significant impact for the:

“Suppression of Invasive Mosquito Populations to Reduce Transmission of Avian Malaria to Threatened and Endangered Forest Birds on East Maui Environmental Assessment (EA), the park concludes the National Environmental Policy Act process and documents the agency’s decision with the selection of the Proposed Action in the EA that will be implemented.”

The EA 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, which 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, who testified on Friday, stated:

“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.”

“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. “There are now 650 ‘Akeke‘e and 40 ‘Akikiki here on Kaua‘i 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 male mosquitoes into the wild, which would stop the female mosquitoes from reproducing and transmitting the disease to the birds.

Jin Harlow, of the Haleakala National Park, explained, “When two mosquitoes have an incompatible bacteria and they lay eggs, they don’t hatch.”

Harlow added that female mosquito rates could decline in 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.

Chris 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 stated:

“When I hear that there’s an unknown and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be, I find that difficult to swallow because Division of Forestry and Wildlife staff has said I believe it’s 15 states have successfully undergone Wolbachia deployment so I’m not sure about the argument of unknown, but the proof is in the numbers. Now 17 [species] out of 70, and we’re fighting over these things, we need to do something, and we need to do it now.”

After the emotional testimony, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Dawn Chang said she found the EA to be adequate.

“What we do know is if we don’t act, they [the birds] will not be here and it becomes moot and then it becomes an irresponsibility on our part,” said Chang.

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