GM mosquito controversy was top story of 2016 for bug board


Florida Keys Mosquito Control District commissioners may have ended the year on a non-controversial note but 2016 was full of debate and discussion — mostly over genetically modified mosquitoes.

Commissioners started every monthly meeting hearing from protestors in opposition of the district’s contract with biotech company Oxitec, approved on Nov. 19.

The contract solidified a long-anticipated agreement for Oxitec to release genetically modified mosquitoes as a method of reducing the population of Aedes aegypti, which carry Zika and other viruses. Oxitec says the offspring of their mosquitoes do not hatch, resulting in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Commissioners went with the results of a nonbinding referendum on Election Day that revealed about 58 percent of voters countywide favored the mosquito release. In the Lower Keys subdivision of Key Haven where a maximum two-year trial was proposed, about 65 percent of voters opposed the release.

Pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, the trial will happen in one of six places under consideration by the district, according to Director Andrea Leal. Key Haven will not be considered.

In October, biotech company MosquitoMate Inc., working through the University of Kentucky, received approval from the district and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to try to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys using mosquitoes infected with the natural bacteria Wolbachia.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are not naturally infected with the Wolbachia bacteria. So if a female mates with a male that has Wolbachia, her eggs will not hatch.

Roughly 100,000 male mosquitoes with Wolbachia will be released every week for six months into one-acre trial areas. They will be shipped from Kentucky.

Both Oxitec and MosquitoMate trials are set for spring 2017 but sites have not been chosen.


October was one of the busiest months of 2016 for Leal. She was named executive director 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 for district employees as part of a project on Big Coppitt Key. Commissioners went back and forth over the project and in the final hours of budget planning voted down a spending plan that would have resulted in a 41 percent tax hike.

Instead of two buildings at a cost of $6.3 million, three modular trailers and the chemical building will go up in the new year, the garage and chemical room at $2.7 million and the trailers at $155,000.

The need for new buildings arose following the city of Key West’s decision not to renew the district’s lease of city-owned land on Stock Island. The lease ends Dec. 31, 2017.

“I think it’s the worst example of teamwork in long-range planning I’ve ever seen,” Commissioner Bill Shaw said of the board’s decision at budget time. Both he and Commissioner Stephen Smith expressed disappointment over “wasted” time and money involving staff hours and the architect’s administration building plans.

But neither Shaw or Smith will be involved in the new year. At the Jan. 17 meeting, Stan Zuba will be sworn in to take the District 4 seat of Shaw, who didn’t run for re-election. The Democrat Zuba beat Repubican Janet Wood in the Nov. 8 election.

Republican Brandon Pinder will replace Smith, a Democrat who was on the board since 1997, after defeating him in November. Zuba and Pinder will serve four years. The seat is District 3.

For District 1, incumbent Republican Jill Cranney-Gage will serve a second four-year term. She won with about 63 percent of the vote on Election Day, defeating Democrat Kathryn Watkins and Oliver Kofoid of the Green Party. Cranney-Gage works in finance for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219