For Florida Keys Mosquito Control District commissioners, 2017 was a year of new developments.
Two new faces joined the board after being elected in November 2016. At the Jan. 17 meeting, Democrat Stan Zuba was sworn in to take the District 4 seat of Republican Bill Shaw, who didn’t run for re-election. Republican Brandon Pinder replaced Stephen Smith, a Democrat who was on the board since 1997.
It was also the first full year for Mosquito Control under Executive Director Andrea Leal. She took the title late last year following the departure of Michael Doyle, who led the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District since 2011 and moved on to a job in North Carolina.
Leal stressed the need for a Lower Keys chemical building and trailers for district employees as part of a project on Big Coppitt Key at a cost of about $3 million.
First there were permit delays, then Hurricane Irma came roaring through the Florida Keys in September, but construction on the buildings is moving along at 18 Aquamarine Drive. There wasn’t much built yet for the hurricane to destroy.
The Zika virus wasn’t in the news nearly as much. The first and only travel-related case of Zika in Monroe County was reported in February by the state Department of Health, compared to 10 travel-related — contracted outside the U.S. — cases in 2016.
The virus causes flu-like symptoms and often the person who has it doesn’t know. It can cause the newborns of infected pregnant women to be born with shrunken skulls.
A trial release of genetically modified mosquitoes by British biotech company Oxitec to drive down the local population of virus-carrying bugs was delayed more than once and fizzled out in discussions at Mosquito Control Board meetings.
Oxitec says the offspring of its GM mosquitoes die almost immediately, resulting in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti, which carry Zika and other viruses. The trial needs approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which never happened this year.
Oxitec submitted a new application with the EPA earlier this month and the EPA now has seven months to make a decision on whether it will issue an experimental use permit.
A different trial to drive down Aedes aegypti bugs started in April on Stock Island with the release of thousands of mosquitoes infected with the natural bacteria Wolbachia. The goal was to have them mate with wild bugs so their eggs wouldn’t hatch, driving down the wild population.
Each week, 75,000 male Wolbachia mosquitoes were shipped to Stock Island from Kentucky biotech company MosquitoMate, which received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year for the trial. It ended in October after Hurricane Irma blew threw the Florida Keys. The trial results have not been released yet.
Commissioners voted in June to put term limits in place for future commissioners. Currently, terms are four years with no limits on the number one can serve. That will change if the state Legislature approves because the Mosquito Control District was legislatively created.
“It should be mid-February when it comes up in session,” said Commissioner Phil Goodman.
The two-month 2018 legislative session begins Jan. 9.
Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219