It’s a warm February evening. A small and anxious group of residents have gathered in a local community hall to discuss the implications of a local wetland rehabilitation project. Some are angry. One of the first questions comes from an elderly gentleman. Close to tears, he explains how his grandchildren no longer visit due to the plagues of mosquitoes that engulf his property day and night. “What are you guys going to do about it?” he pleads.
I learnt a valuable lesson that night. Trying to explain the best mosquito repellent to use doesn’t go down too well when an audience is facing some significant nuisance-biting impacts around their homes. It doesn’t matter how much DEET is in the repellent, it may well work but is it something you need to wear all day just to get the day to day jobs done around the house? Something more substantial is required and, with hindsight, should have been in place before the first waves of mosquitoes left the local wetlands.
Coastal wetlands are under threat
Sea level rise and climate change is putting pressure on saltmarshes and urbanisation is eating away land that would otherwise accommodate a landward shift in estuarine habitats. There is nowhere for saltmarshes to spread to so they’re destined to be swallowed up by mangroves. While the mangroves are valuable themselves, they don’t provide the same critical habitats required by many of the internationally protected migratory shorebirds that rely on saltmarshes. Saltmarsh habitats could well disappear from much of the east coast in coming decades if sea levels rise as expected and mangroves continue their march landward.
Saltmarshes are home to one of our most important pest and vector mosquito species. While it is important to remember that Aedes vigilax is an Australian native animal and just as much a part of our wetland ecosystems as fish and birds, there is little doubt that it can have substantial impacts with regard to nuisance-biting and the transmission of Ross River virus.
Historically, many of the saltmarshes along the east coast were drained or filled to enable increased cattle grazing (although much of it was under the guise of protection from flooding). Tidal flows were cut off with the construction of levee banks and installation of flood gates. Notwithstanding the impacts of grazing, without tidal exchange, the habitats became brackish water to freshwater dominated systems with a dramatic change in vegetation. Saltmarsh and sedgeland vegetation was steadily replaced by reeds and rushes. Invasive plants such as Phragmites quickly took over many of these wetlands.
To combat the degradation of wetlands and impending loss due to climate change, there has been some ambitious wetland rehabilitation projects planned. One of the largest in the southern hemisphere is the Hexham Swamp Rehabilitation Project. Much can be learned from the experience in this wetland just west of Newcastle, NSW, and applied to rehabilitation projects, not only in Australia but overseas as well.
Rehabilitation of Hexham Swamp involved the staged opening of existing floodgates to reinstall tidal flows to an otherwise freshwater system. Many aspects of this project were considered and it is unsurprising that one major issue was the possible impact of mosquitoes. Mosquito populations were something of legend in this area, enough so that there is a “big mosquito” outside the local bowling club affectionately known as “Ossie the Mossie” (coincidently, “Ossie” celebrated her 20th birthday in March 2014).
One of the important considerations when assessing mosquito risk was that there had been a dramatic transformation of the areas surrounding the wetlands in the last 20 years. What was once agricultural land was now residential. This is the same situation right along the east coast of Australia, the rapid urbanisation and swelling residential populations along the coast have put people in the firing line of Aedes vigilax.
The prospect of mosquito control was raised in the early stages of the rehabilitation planning but there was great reluctance from the local authorities to head down that path. The problem is that broad scale mosquito control and ecological rehabilitation are often seen at opposite ends of the wetland management spectrum. I’ve experienced this many times first hand, from scepticism regarding the non-target impacts of biological larvicides to “Apocalypse Now” jokes as helicopters go about routine spraying of local wetlands.
The hangover from the actual and perceived impacts of pesticide use more than 50 years ago is still present in the minds of many responsible for managing local wetlands. I say perceived as the development of environmentally sustainable mosquito control programs over the past two decades may not be appreciated amongst those charged with managing wetlands and wildlife.
I feel we need to continue building the case for the range of mosquito control strategies available for our coastal wetlands. Not only do we need to convince local authorities that mosquito populations can be minimised without adversely impacting the local environment but that mosquito control should be a critical consideration in wetland rehabilitation projects. It also has the potential to reduce mosquito-borne disease.
We know that the direct non-target impacts of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis and s-methoprene are minimal and there is growing evidence that the indirect impacts on local wildlife due to reduced mosquito populations isn’t a major concern. Well-designed projects can also minimise the frequency of treatments while reducing peaks in mosquito activity.
It seems our coastal bats populations are mostly eating moths, not mosquitoes so there is unlikely to be any significant impact on these bats resulting from reduced food. There is no reason why the judicious use of larvicides can’t knock the top off abundant mosquito populations, reduce the pest impacts on local community and not pose a risk to local wildlife. Perhaps it should be considered a critical component of wetland rehabilitation?
In speaking with wetland managers, I try to instil with them the importance of mosquito control. There is a risk that swarms of nuisance biting mosquitoes may erode the good will in the community for wetland rehabilitation. These systems, particularly in the early phases of rehabilitation don’t represent pristine environments and while there may not be a desire to establish ongoing mosquito control programs, some control may prove useful while the wetland comes back into balance with the changed environmental conditions.
Rehabilitation takes time and while there is substantial breakdown of freshwater vegetation it is not going to be ideal for fish and other mosquito predators. It is likely to provide ideal conditions for mosquitoes. Over time, however, fish are likely to increase in both their abundance and penetration into the wetlands and greater tidal flushing will make many of the wetland habitats generally unsuitable for mosquitoes.
Perhaps there is benefit in undertaking control as a show of good will to the local community? After all, engagement with the local community will be critical in the success of wetland rehabilitation projects.
The restoration of tidal flows to Hexham Swamp resulted in an initial increase in the abundance of Aedes vigilax. These increases resulted in substantial nuisance-biting impacts. However, in subsequent seasons, the populations of Aedes vigilax levelled out to comparable levels to those of the surrounding estuarine wetlands. The net result has generally been that the long-term moderate increases in Aedes vigilax populations have been balanced by reductions in Culex annulirostris and Coquilettidia linealis populations as the wetlands shifted from freshwater to saline. The health of the wetlands, as well as the local estuary, is improving.
Mosquito control is only a short-term fix and if the rehabilitation of estuarine wetlands is not carefully planned, there may well be ongoing mosquito impacts. However, reducing any initial impacts will go a long way to ensuring continued engagement of the community with the local wetlands. Cost and the operational considerations may be a barrier for organisations unfamiliar with broadscale mosquito control but these issues can be overcome with the expertise that exists in many parts of the country.
In summary, it is important that mosquito management be considered in the planning process of major wetland rehabilitation projects. There is little doubt that such projects will be required into the future as saltmarsh habitats and other estuarine wetlands are threatened but protection wetlands shouldn’t mean increasing mosquito populations. A balance is required between conservation of environmental health and protection of human health.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in “Mosquito Bites” (the Bulletin of the Mosquito Control Association of Australia).