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1st Medflies in County Discovered by Trappers : Agriculture: Quarantine declared on fruit in vicinity where two fertile female insects were found. Farmers fear pests may threaten profits.

October 01, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON and MAIA DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two fertile female Medflies--the dreaded pests that devour soft fruit and destroy grower profits--were captured Friday morning near a stand of Camarillo fig trees, marking the first time trappers have found the insects in Ventura County.

The discovery of the two Medflies drowned in the yeasty brew at the bottom of a glass-bottle trap horrified farmers, who fear the voracious pests could take a huge bite out of the county's $848-million agricultural industry. The blue-eyed insects, which sport distinctive brown-and-clear-striped wings, have already invaded much of Southern California.

"Very few things scare me as much as this," citrus grower Ken Gerry said.

Medflies prefer to feast on soft fruits, such as plums and grapes. But they also burrow into strawberries, lemons, oranges and even avocados--all key revenue-producing crops for Ventura County.

Thus, even two dead Medflies present a major threat. Especially since 1,000 live flies usually lurk nearby for every one captured in a trap, according to Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

The Medflies are worrisome, not just because of their appetite, but because of their reputation.

They bore into fruit and chomp through the tender flesh inside. They do not destroy trees, but they can tear up a whole crop. And they are so feared that once one fertile Medfly is found in a region, fruit from the entire area becomes suspect--even if it's certified pest-free.

"It's not good news. It will definitely be a public-relations challenge," said Stan Zervas of the Fillmore Insectary.

The county immediately slapped a quarantine on all fruit within a 4 1/2-mile radius of the Medfly discovery site, northeast of Upland and Lewis roads at the campus of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo.

The quarantine zone includes several citrus groves, some row-crop vegetables and one strawberry field. For an unspecified period, fruit from those ranches will be banned from shipment, said Libby Ouellette, an insectary supervisor at Oxnard Pest Control and a member of the county's Medfly task force.

Starting this morning, county pest experts will hand-spray a blend of poison and bait on foliage within 200 meters of the discovery site. The spray mixes the chemical malathion, which kills adult Medflies, with sweet-smelling corn syrup, which should lure the insects to the site and dupe them into drinking the toxic pesticide.

Neighbors might notice droplets of the sticky pinkish-brown brew clinging to foliage. But Ouellette said the spraying would be minimal and it is safe to walk through the affected foliage immediately.

County workers will also fan out and set thousands of additional traps, made of square yellow paper coated with a sticky bait, in an attempt to discover just how many Medflies might have made it into Ventura County.

But those measures did not reassure farmers whose livelihood rests on untainted crops--and overseas markets.

The Japanese government has repeatedly threatened to boycott California crops if the Medfly infestation spreads. Already, the pest has been detected in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and more than 1,500 square miles in Southern California are under quarantine.

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Friday's find in Ventura County marks an alarming foray north for the Medfly.

"It's a major concern," agricultural consultant David Holden said late Friday. "We've all been on the phone for the past two hours, talking to each other and trading what we don't know."

Subduing Medflies is especially tough, Holden said, because they reproduce amazingly fast in warm weather, spawning eight generations a year.

"They're not that hard to kill, but the problem is, they're so prolific. They reproduce so quickly that you soon have generations upon generations to kill," Holden said.

To combat the voracious pest, the state has been releasing millions of sterile Medflies into the Los Angeles Basin each week, hoping they will mate with fertile females and winnow the ranks of future generations. Officials also sprayed malathion over the Riverside County cities of Corona and Norco last winter to kill the adult Medflies.

After more intensive investigation, including scrutiny of the 5,000 Medfly traps scattered around Ventura County, state officials will determine what other steps to take.

They could order heavier spraying, an expanded quarantine or more intense trapping. Whatever the decision, however, farmers said they fear Ventura County fruit will get a bad name--even if no other Medflies are found in the region.

"I'm just afraid the Japanese will shut their market right away," said grower Gerry, whose 60-acre lemon ranch lies within the quarantine zone, about three miles east of the discovery site.

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About 30% of Ventura County's fresh lemons are shipped to Japan, Laird said. Lemons brought in more than $166 million to the county last year, and a Japanese embargo could be devastating.

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