Bacteria-Infected Mosquitoes on Maui and Kaua‘i: All Islands are Being Targeted
The state continues to railroad this dangerous experiment through, compromising health and desecrating sacred lands
On Friday, October 13th, the Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) once again disregarded the will of the people and voted to plow forward with their plan to release bacteria-infected mosquitoes on the island of Kaua‘i. Dismissing serious risks brought to their attention by testifiers who have worked tirelessly for over a year to protect the islands from this dangerous project, the board continues to push on with their predetermined agenda that prioritizes corporate interests and biotech industry experimentation over the health of all life in Hawai‘i. They’ve got a lot of funding on the line, and they’re determined to keep that money rolling in as they plan to build out their insectary and mass produce these lab-altered mosquitoes for release on the islands into perpetuity.
As usual, the BLNR rearranged their meeting items at the last minute and moved the mosquitoes to the end of the day, forcing testifiers to sit through almost eight hours of unrelated discussion. When the mosquitoes finally came up, Department of Land and Natural Resources’ (DLNR’s) David Smith opened by announcing that a Hawaiian oli (chant) would start the state’s presentation. One brave testifier representing the Native Hawaiian community stood up and walked out of the room at that point, addressing Smith directly to let him know that this was “cultural misappropriation” and an embarrassment. At that, board members – along with deputy attorney general Miranda Steed – erupted in laughter. Another attorney defending the state against Hawai‘i Unites in our court case challenging the mosquito releases boisterously exclaimed “a hui hou” as the testifier made her way out. So much for respecting the people’s voice.
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The presentation continued with DLNR’s Cynthia King. An entomologist who studies insects, King chose not to speak on the lab-altered mosquitoes planned for release, focusing instead on birds (not her specialty). Providing no data to back her claims, she described a climate change crisis causing mosquitoes to invade higher elevations on Kaua‘i where native honeycreepers are threatened by avian malaria that the mosquitoes transmit. Her primary narrative was that the ‘akikiki bird found only on Kaua‘i is expected to be extinct in the wild by the end of this year. She suggested that thereafter, the ‘akikiki will only persist in Hawai‘i’s conservation recovery centers (as captives).
David Smith jumped in again at that point to describe how just a few months ago, they were still seeing between 60-100 ‘akikiki birds in the wild. Now they only know of five birds left. No explanation was given by Smith as to what may have actually happened to those other 55-95 ‘akikiki since earlier this year, but a February 2023 Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project job application offers some clues:
Can we get a count of the ‘akikiki birds caged and/or inadvertently killed by “specialists” who have determined that capturing them and transferring them to managed human care facilities is the best way to prevent the imminent extinction of the species? Probably not.
Smith raised the alarm about how the DLNR is now looking at other species being next up for extinction from the same slippery slope narrative. He did note that ‘amakihi, one of the most common native forest birds, are doing pretty well on Maui. What he didn’t mention is that ‘amakihi are doing well because they’ve developed a natural tolerance and resistance to avian malaria. We may never know if the endangered ‘akikiki could also develop such a resistance if left alone in nature without human interference. Smith and his cohorts are narrowly focused on the release of millions of bacteria-infected mosquitoes in the birds’ natural habitat as the only solution, despite evidence that the lab-altered mosquitoes themselves could potentially cause the honeycreepers’ extinction.
BLNR Chair Dawn Chang then excitedly suggested that the state explore the legality of using the governor’s emergency proclamation powers “to save our most endangered birds.” With Hawaii’s state motto seemingly morphing into “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” I can’t say we didn’t see that coming.
DLNR’s David Smith brought the talk back to releasing lab-altered mosquitoes, explaining that “we’ve done it on Maui, and we’re starting to get birds on the ground over there.” Well, that doesn’t sound good. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he misspoke. He went on to describe the Mark Release Recapture studies, which seem to be revealing disappointing results. According to Smith, these initial studies to determine how to move forward with the project are showing that the bacteria-infected mosquitoes are not spreading as much as the agencies involved thought they might. Unsurprisingly, the solution is that they may have to do more releases to get the coverage they’re looking for.
Chair Chang again emphasized how Smith’s update was making the situation seem more urgent. She requested data on the bird declines. An unnamed project proponent responded that updated data will be available in June of next year, stating that surveys are conducted every five years and were conducted this past spring with data requiring time to be analyzed. Chang persisted, saying that June may be too late, and suggesting that the presenters get her something now. Apparently, accuracy is not a priority when it comes to bird counts for this project. Chang went on to state that maybe there are actions they need to take now (hint: she wants that proclamation). “This is compelling. There’s an emergency,” she concluded.
My turn to testify offered a brief opportunity to bring some pertinent facts into the conversation:
“I'm Tina Lia, founder of the environmental nonprofit Hawai‘i Unites. We're opposed to the request for approval of the final environmental assessment for your bacteria-infected mosquito experiment on Kaua‘i. Southern house mosquitoes transmit human diseases, including West Nile virus, elephantiasis, encephalitis, and potentially Zika virus. Peer-reviewed studies show Wolbachia bacteria can increase pathogen infection and cause mosquitoes to become more capable of transmitting avian malaria and West Nile virus (bird and human). This project could cause the extinction of endangered native birds, and it may impact people's health.
Female mosquitoes that bite, breed and spread disease will be released. EPA guidelines allow for the release of one female for every 250,000 males. You have been lying about that, continually. Male mosquitoes pass pathogens to females. Pathogen screenings are unknown, and that information is being withheld from the people. Assertions of no human health risks are based on unsound science that has been discredited by the EPA. Foreign bacteria will be introduced. You're lying about that. No biosecurity protocols or mitigation plan have been presented.
Studies have not been done to address horizontal transmission, math models, wind drift, superinfection, increased pathogen infection and disease spreading capability, evolutionary events, population replacement, or the creation of lab-strain females in the wild. Alternatives haven't been considered.
These are not conspiracies. These are risks that were brought up by a tropical disease expert with decades of experience and peer-reviewed studies documenting mosquito-borne illness – over 40 of them that have been authored by Dr. Lorrin Pang, and you're not listening to him, and you are discounting his information, and you have the nerve to come out here and talk about conspiracy theories. This is wrong. What you're doing is wrong.
Kaua‘i and Maui would be the largest Wolbachia mosquito releases of any kind globally to date. There's no prior documented use of southern house mosquitoes for Wolbachia stand-alone field release. You're lying about that as well. The final EA states that you have no intention of taking responsibility for the outcome of these mosquitoes on the native birds. I cannot believe I read that in this environmental assessment. I read you saying you have no responsibility for what happens to these birds. What about the people who may be impacted? What about wildland fires? Are you going to take responsibility for that? That's in your EA as well.
Conflicts of interest include the DLNR building out an insectary to mass produce lab-altered mosquitoes for release on the islands into perpetuity – forever. Your agenda is selling out the sacred lands of Hawai‘i to corporate interests and biotech industry experimentation. We're opposed to the authorization for the chairperson to issue a finding of no significant impact. The scope, risks and experimental nature of this plan require detailed comprehensive studies and documentation of the impacts to the health of the people, native birds, wildlife and the ‘āina. We demand an Environmental Impact Statement. More information is in my written testimony. I reserve the right to request a contested case hearing on agenda item C-1 after the vote. Mahalo.”
More compelling testimony in opposition to the project followed from Stand Together Hawaii’s Michelle Melendez. She emphasized the peer-reviewed studies showing the dangers of what could happen and pleaded with the board not to experiment on sacred Hawaiian lands. Melendez pointed out that the agencies’ own documents state that the outcome of the plan is unknown. She noted that the BLNR is ignoring the concerns and the alternatives presented by Dr. Pang, and concluded that they’re putting the environment, people, and birds at risk forever without doing a full Environmental Impact Statement.
The community advocate who walked out of the meeting earlier in protest of the misappropriated Hawaiian chant also returned, stating that she was there representing 32 of her friends and family from Kaua‘i along with her East Maui Hāna community. She questioned the lack of outreach to the people of East Maui who are actively opposed to the project. Calling the plan dangerous and disgraceful, she closed by reminding the board that their decisions will follow them and suggesting that they be on the right side of history.
Other testifiers spoke in favor of biopesticide insect science that they clearly had no understanding of. Some seemed genuinely concerned for the birds, though you would think they’d want to know more about the state’s refusal to study documented risks of an irreversible and potentially catastrophic experiment on their island home. It really is shameful that the agencies promoting this project have been intentionally misrepresenting the truth about what could go wrong. The DLNR’s own environmental assessment attempts to relieve them of all responsibility for what happens to the endangered honeycreepers as a result of the mosquito releases. Who will be held accountable? Their board that voted this plan through?
When the last in-person testifier was called up, we got our “a hui hou,” meeting again with the showy defense attorney representing the state’s agenda via the non-governmental organization Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). In what could be viewed as an attempt to litigate our legal case outside the courtroom, she directly addressed my testimony, responding with information presented by the state during our July 2023 Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction hearing (still in progress). Her focus was on our expert witness from that hearing, tropical disease and vector expert Dr. Lorrin Pang. The same arguments used by the state to try to discredit Pang in court back in July were again dragged out as a desperate diversionary tactic.
In a surprise move, the CBD attorney’s testimony did confirm for the first time publicly that the state is allowed to release one female mosquito for every 250,000 males – a fact we uncovered in their own documents last year. What she didn’t say is that female mosquitoes bite, breed, and spread disease; or that one female released can produce 160,000 more females in her eight-week lifespan. She tried to downplay the risks of lab-infected females, neglecting to mention that just three females released in Singapore caused the mosquito population to be replaced with the lab-strain mosquitoes.
With their fixed agenda of biotech funding and corporate experimentation taking precedence, the BLNR again ignored the voice of the people and the serious testimony documenting the risks of releasing disease vectors on our islands. The final environmental assessment for Kaua‘i was voted through unanimously.
As the meeting concluded, my request for a contested case hearing was acknowledged. Hawai‘i Unites’ written petition is anticipated to be on the agenda at an upcoming BLNR meeting. We will have another opportunity to testify before this board.
If the plan for Kaua‘i continues moving forward, mosquito releases could begin early next year. On Maui, despite our active court case, the project is accelerating with larger scale releases planned to start next month.
Hawai‘i Unites is in a David-and-Goliath battle to stop this monstrous mosquito invasion from destroying the natural beauty and health of the Hawaiian Islands. Our TRO and Preliminary Injunction hearing to halt mosquito releases on Maui is expected to continue in January. Please help us set a precedent for all islands as we build a global movement to protect our environment from these biotech industry takeovers.
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Hawai‘i Unites is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of our environment and natural resources.
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