Wetlands, climate change, and managing mosquitoes


I’ve spent over twenty years sloshing about in wetlands around Sydney and surrounds. They’re changing. They’re changing due to shifts in climate, sea level rise, and urbanisation. The 2019 World Wetlands Day is a time to stop and reflect on the state of wetlands around the world and how we can keep them health under the threat of climate change.

World Wetlands Day is held every year on 2 February,  this day marking the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The theme of the 2019 World Wetlands Day is “Wetlands and Climate Change” and we shouldn’t just think about the impact of climate change on wetlands but also how wetlands can help us as we face the challenges of a changing climate.

Coastal wetlands around Sydney are impacted in many ways. Mangrove forests and saltmarshes are degraded through direct and indirect human activity. There is recent research indicating that sea level rise is impacting mangroves along the Parramatta River in Sydney. This requires active management to ensure substantial degradation and die back occurs, as has been seen elsewhere in Australia.

Some of our research even suggests that degraded mangroves are more productive when it comes to mosquitoes. Effective rehabilitation of these habitats may actually reduce the mosquitoes flying out of these environments and impacting the community nearby. Similarly, urban planning should consider the risk posed by mosquitoes in wetlands adjacent to new and expanding residential developments. This includes major wetland rehabilitation projects.


The challenges facing wetlands isn’t unique to Australia. Released in conjunction with World Wetlands Day preparations was The Global Wetland Outlook. A document that provides “a current overview of global wetlands: their extent, trends, drivers of change and the responses needed to reverse the historical decline in wetland area and quality”.

While we think of rainforests and coral reefs under greatest threat, it is a sobering thought to think that up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. These are environments that were, until relatively recently, considered wastelands. With this lack of perceived value came greater susceptibility to abuse and degradation.

Along with the unsurprising loss of wetland area and decline in biodiversity associated with these environments come some interesting findings. The most interesting from a mosquito management point of view is that artificial wetlands are actually increasing in some areas. Notwithstanding an assessment of the ecosystem services they provide, they’re more likely to be closer to human habitation, so any mosquitoes associated with them may have relatively greater impact.

In recent years, the value of wetlands has increased. There is an understanding now that these environments provide critical ecosystem services. There is also a growing understanding of the wetland’s roles in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Coastal wetlands in particularly provide protection from increasingly severe storm events and trap valuable carbon stores that assist in mitigating the impacts of climate change.


This then raises the issues of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are a natural part of wetland ecosystems. While often their pest impacts may indicate the poor health of the wetlands, at other time, abundant mosquito populations are a natural occurrence that fluctuate in their intensity from year to year. How do best manage mosquitoes associated with these wetlands?

I’ve written about how I think mosquito control should actually be considered an important component of coastal wetland rehabilitation. How climate change may be impacting mosquito threats and that even hot and dry summers under the influence of El Nino may not necessarily mean that mosquitoes are less problematic.

Based on the experience during the 2018-2019 summer, mosquitoes seem to persist in plague proportions despite the extreme temperatures being experienced in NSW.

It is important to remember that there are many mosquito species associated with wetlands, especially freshwater habitats, that pose no substantial threat to humans. There are hundreds of mosquitoes in Australia, less than a dozen really pose a substantial pest or public health threat. Many mosquitoes may play an important ecological role in wetland ecosystems. This may include representing a locally important food source for insectivorous wildlife or possibly pollinating plants.


A balance is required. If we’re going to continue squeezing an increasing human population into a narrow stretch of land up against the coast, there are many issues to consider here and they’re not just about how human activity is impacting those coastal wetlands. Pollution is a problem, our physical damage is another. Worst still, we’re taking away the opportunity of these normally resilient habitats to adapt to a rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storm events. Our cities and their infrastructure provide a hard and unforgiving edge against the wetlands.

Our wetlands even battle against themselves sometime. The threat of mangrove incursion into saltmarsh habitats is of increasing concern. Its counter-intuitive but perhaps we need to be pulling out mangroves to save some coastal wetlands.

Expanding, modifying, and creating new coastal wetlands will require local authorities to turn their mind to the issue of mosquitoes. Firstly, consideration needs to be given to what may constitute a tolerable level of mosquito exposure. How many mosquito bites are too many? How many cases of mosquito-borne disease are considered “normal” each year. Once these thresholds are drawn and exceeded, who is responsible for the decisions on active mosquito control? Who pays?

Another ecosystem disservice to consider is how the nuisance-biting of mosquitoes may discourage engagement with local wetlands. less engagement may mean less support for conservation and rehabilitation efforts. Less community interest, support, and activism may then result is less political drive to protect local wetlands by local authorities.

Importantly, decisions regarding the management of coastal wetlands, as well as those peppered throughout the city, need to be made with some consideration of mosquitoes and their potential impact. How do you convince the local community about the overall benefits of carbon sequestration, wildlife conservation, and protection of infrastructure is worthwhile if their quality of life is degraded through summer swarms and nuisance-biting mosquitoes?

More details on managing the risks associated with estuarine mosquitoes is provided in this book chapter included in the free Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s guide to managing urban wetlands.

For more about World Wetlands Day activities in Australia see here.

To stay up to date with my adventures in local wetlands, you can follow me on Instagram here.




Does wetland rehabilitation need mosquito control?

Webb_estuarinewetlands_SydneyOlympicPark_2014Mosquitoes can be more than a nuisance. They pose health risks but could also erode the good will of the community for wetland rehabilitation projects. Wetland rehabilitation needs mosquito control.

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.

webb_landinglightswetlandsEstuarine wetlands and mosquitoes

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.

webb_floodgates_march2011Bringing back the tides

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.

Webb_MosquitoCollectionsIs there such a thing as “environmentally friendly” mosquito control?

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?

redkneeddoteral_kooragangisland_march2015Mosquito control and 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).