Stricter Limit on Insect Control

With the fast approach of a planning deadline for Suffolk County’s mosquito control effort for 2019, there is a renewed call for a stricter limit, if not a total ban, on a chemical used to control the stinging menace’s populations. 

Methoprene spraying of salt marshes is a favorite technique of the county Vector Control Department, whose responsibility is to limit annoying and potential disease-carrying mosquitoes. Its methods have long come under fire from environmentalists concerned that the wholesale use of pesticides and other compounds causes excessive harm to other wildlife. This year, activists, the East Hampton Town Trustees, and the Nature Conservancy banded together to do something about it.

In a pilot program at Accabonac Harbor in Springs, volunteers conducted weekly mosquito larvae counts. After the data were entered on a smartphone app, the Nature Conservancy passed it on to the county, which had agreed to limit methoprene application as a trial based on the sample results. The program was, surprisingly enough, among the first evidence-based mosquito control efforts here; given the size of the county and limited staff and money, actual sampling was limited. Now, armed with information, the county Vector Control Department can make informed decisions about when and where to spray.

The problem with methoprene is that it appears to harm non-target insects as well as crustaceans. Strict restrictions on its use have been put in place in other areas, such as New York City’s Jamaica Bay. An increasing number of environmentalists and groups on Long Island, including Defend H20 and the Accabonac Protection Committee, would like to see it curtailed here. Bills are pending in the State Legislature to do just that, and a petition calling on Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone to end its use is circulating.

Vector Control has long sounded the alarm about mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus. However, given its rarity, that focus could be misplaced and its resources might be better directed to the demonstrated health risks posed by an exploding tick population. Mosquitoes may be irritating, but the real health crisis here right now comes from blood-sucking pests that crawl, not fly.

What the Accabonac test demonstrates as well is the power of cooperation among citizen volunteers, private organizations, and government officials. Agencies such as the Suffolk Health Department, the Department of Public Works, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are stretched thin by tight budgets and vast and complex responsibilities. By gaining better knowledge of mosquitoes’ breeding, the county can further reduce the potential harm to other organisms or, we hope, eliminate the use of methoprene altogether.

Giving the public a way to get skin in the game to make a difference can be an asset both for policy and a healthier environment. Much credit is due to Suffolk Legislator Bridget Fleming for backing the mosquito larvae sampling. The program should be a model for other public-private collaborations to come on a range of issues.