Can an endangered native fish help stop mosquito-borne diseases in Arizona?

The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) is teaming up with Pima County, Phoenix Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to combat the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, like West Nile and Zika, with the help of a tiny, water-dwelling Arizona native.

The Gila topminnow, according to AZGFD, is a small fish with a short lifespan, which generally last less than a year. It was once the most abundant fish species found in the Gila River basin stretching from New Mexcio over to southern and western Arizona. But due to habitat loss and degradation, the fish was listed as federally endangered in 1967.

AZGFD has worked to restore and de-list the topminnow and the current project is underway with conservation in mind. Pima County is creating a facility where the fish can be kept and raised, according to a release.

"This is a terrific example of how native species may provide benefits to human health and welfare, while recovering endangered species,” Doug Duncan, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a release.

According to a release, the plan, announced back in May, is to introduce the topminnow into abandoned standing waters found within Pima County in urban areas, such as swimming pools, fountains and backyard ponds. Since the topminnow spends most of its time at the surfacing feeding off different things such as mosquito eggs, the goal is to "target mosquito larvae and reduce the threat of mosquito-borne diseases."

“This project is one of the first to use an endangered species for vector control of mosquitoes,” said Ross Timmons, AZGFD’s project coordinator. “Standing waters are prime breeding habitat for mosquitoes, and that can pose a serious public health threat to the community.”

In one of its first instances, the Gila topminnow was placed into a green pool in the backyard of an empty home near Tucson. Arizona Public Media reports, ten fish were placed in the pool in an effort to stop the flying pest from breeding.

AZGFD said on Facebook that the pools, and any other water source for that matter, will be "extensively" tested before the fish are added and although it's still an "experiment" the department will be "watching carefully and evaluating next steps."

"We'd like them to be so successful that the fish could be moved to another pool to kill mosquitos there, but let's not get ahead of ourselves," the department wrote.

If successful, AZGFD wrote in a release the project could be "considered for future deployment in Pinal County and hopefully other county governments around the state."

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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