Communicating Conservation: Aiming for consensus on the use of new conservation technologies

Posted by Erin Lloyd on Thursday, November 16 2017

Many of Hawaii’s remaining forest birds are experiencing significant population declines and facing extinction. As the climate warms, mosquitoes are invading the last strongholds of Hawaii’s native birds and killing them by transmitting avian malaria. Fortunately, there are new technologies being developed to stop malaria in humans that may work to stop avian malaria in Hawaii. A promising approach uses biotechnology to sterilize mosquitoes. Similar sterile insect techniques are commonplace worldwide to control pests. However, most use irradiation to sterilize the insect; mosquitoes are too fragile for this approach and the new technique uses the bacterium Wolbachia implanted in male mosquitoes to cause sterility. Wolbachia is a naturally occurring bacteria found in 80% of arthropods and when different strains occur in males and females of an insect species it can cause sterility. The biotechnology aspect of this approach is it involves injecting male mosquitoes with a novel strain of Wolbachia and releasing them in the wild. Research is currently underway to determine if this approach will work for the mosquito species that transmits malaria to birds in Hawaii.

It is unlikely that this biotech sterile insect technique will be approved for use in Hawaii without robust community, stakeholder, regulatory, and policy maker engagement. A key aspect of this effort will be to differentiate the proposed sterile insect technique, using biotechnology and Wolbachia, from other more controversial tools involving modification of the mosquito’s genome. Unfortunately, misinformation is already being disseminated that mischaracterizes the Wolbachia sterile insect technique as genetic engineering. Due to historical events in Hawaii, there is strong community sentiment against genetic engineering, and we are concerned that if the public perceives the proposed sterile insect technique as “just another GMO,” the approach will not receive fair and thoughtful consideration.

The American Bird Conservancy is collaborating with state and federal agencies in Hawaii to develop a strategy to engage stakeholders. We are seeking input and participation from the Switzer Network to assist us in designing and implementing the best possible process.

Our first goal is to develop a strategy for community engagement and communications. We are looking for assistance from the Switzer Network in developing this strategy, with a focus on creating key messages and identifying and reaching out to influential individuals and groups in the community, cultural, environmental, natural resource management and regulatory arenas. Our hope is this outreach will enable us to create an informed, inclusive, and transparent decision process about the Wolbachia
sterile insect technique and the future of Hawaii’s forest birds. 

We request feedback by Friday, December 1.

With thanks,
Brad Keitt
Jonathan Scheuer
Jason Delborne

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