These fish are keeping South Jersey mosquito population under control

Camden County freeholder Carmen Rodriguez speaks Thursday at a press conference announcing that the county's health department and the Mosquito Control Commission are partnering to distribute fish throughout South Jersey in an effort to prevent mosquito-borne diseases from spreading.

If the mosquito population is kept under control this summer, it will be fish that South Jersey residents have to thank.

Officials from the Camden County Mosquito Control Commission and the county Health Department announced Thursday that the two agencies, as they did last summer, are joining forces to distribute hundreds of thousands of little fish in stagnant bodies of water throughout the region.

The officials spoke in a garage-like building at the commission in Lindenwold. Behind them stood four long, gray tanks holding fathead minnows and killifish, water filtering in and out of the tanks.

The fish can individually consume hundreds of mosquito larvae per day, helping to keep mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile, encephalitis, and Zika from spreading. The fish are not meant to be eaten.

The agencies released about 200,000 of the fish last year but expect to release more this season because they started earlier. Last year, they began releasing the fish in July. This year, they began in April.

Fish tanks, holding fathead minnows and killifish, sit inside the Camden County Mosquito Commission. They are taken from the tanks and distributed in standing bodies of water throughout South Jersey. MICHAEL BURKE / Staff

Throughout the summer the fish will be released into stagnant bodies of water where mosquitoes are often found, such as abandoned pools in backyards, said Jack Sworaski, the county’s director of environmental affairs.

“It’s not streams, it’s not rivers,” he said. “That’s moving water. That’s not the issue. Standing water is the issue.”

The fish, which are too small to be caught, will be released in counties throughout South Jersey. The Mosquito Commission receives the fish from the state hatchery in Hackettstown, and representatives from South Jersey counties come to the commission to pick up the fish and distribute them, Sworaski said.

The state is paying for the county’s initiative, which has a price tag of about $3,000 because of equipment and distribution costs, officials said Thursday.

In addition to distributing the fish throughout the area, Camden County also sprays different streets and neighborhoods in the county early each morning to reduce population growth in residential areas.

One person, a 56-year-old man from Passaic County, has died this year from encephalitis, according to the Health Department. There have been three deaths in the last two years because of the West Nile virus.

Lauren Segreto studies mosquitoes at the Camden County Mosquito Control Commission. The surveillance tactic helps the commission identify the mosquito species and the area they come from. MICHAEL BURKE / Staff

Though Zika has not yet been found in any New Jersey mosquitoes, officials are ready for the possibility. It’s possible that mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus could travel to the South Jersey region late in the summer, said Carmen Rodriguez, a Camden County freeholder and liaison to the Health Department.

Everyone from New Jersey who has been infected with Zika was infected while abroad.

“We don’t want these diseases,” Rodriguez said. “These diseases are very bad.”