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Medfly Experts Discuss Likely Boundaries of Quarantine : Agriculture: Official says shipment restrictions probably will be in place within days. Zone would initially cover thousands of acres of farmland.

October 03, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

State and federal Medfly experts conferred Sunday afternoon to set the boundaries of a probable quarantine, which would restrict shipment of fruit grown within several miles of the site in Camarillo where two fertile flies were found last week.

"There is a very good possibility of an agricultural quarantine going in place" within days, said Douglas L. Hendrix, a spokesman for the Cooperative Medfly Project, a state and federal task force. "There will probably be one."

Typically, such quarantines extend in a 4 1/2-mile radius from "ground zero"--the site of the original Medfly find. Because Ventura County's first Mediterranean fruit flies were found near an agricultural greenbelt, the most likely quarantine zone in Ventura County would initially cover thousands of acres of farmland.

Hundreds of growers, from back-yard gardeners with a half-dozen avocado trees to commercial ranchers with vast strawberry fields, could be affected. They would need to spray crops with pesticide at their own expense before transporting any fruit outside the quarantine zone.

"It's our nightmare," citrus grower John Grether said. "This is what we have been dreading for such a long time."

The Cooperative Medfly Project is composed of experts from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Together, they will draw the quarantine boundaries and make all decisions on spraying.

Based in the Los Angeles area, the group includes entomologists, trappers and field workers, who travel from crisis to crisis seeking to control the fruit-gobbling insects. In Ventura County, they have consulted with local agricultural representatives, including a group of growers who have established their own Medfly task force.

The quarantine's precise scope depends on how many Medflies, with their voracious appetites and rapid-fire reproductive systems, stumble into entomologists' traps over the next few days.

Inspectors found at least two suspicious larvae Sunday, and sent them to a lab in Sacramento. Because Medfly maggots are so small and formless--just white, fingernail-sized blobs--it's nearly impossible to identify them by sight. Positive identification will take a day or two, officials said.

If no more Medflies turn up near the gnarled fig tree on the well-groomed campus of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, the quarantine could end relatively quickly, Hendrix said. But if the troublesome insects have invaded Ventura County in force, the quarantine could drag on indefinitely. A serious infestation could also prompt officials to consider aerial spraying of malathion, a potent pesticide that zaps adult Medflies.

For now, however, officials will not speculate on the likelihood of spraying, or even the duration of a quarantine.

Officials cannot make any decisions until they know how many Medflies might have burrowed into sweet oranges, and how many maggots might be uncurling inside oily avocados.

"We're just trying to assess the situation," Hendrix said. "We need to see if there are any other flies out there, and our trapping program will be a good barometer."

That trapping program continued intensely Sunday as a team of 20 state and federal inspectors picked through the fruit grove that stretches across rolling hills outside St. John's Seminary. More than 60 workers had converged on the site Saturday, hanging traps and spraying a small area with a sticky mixture of malathion poison and corn syrup bait.

To the rich tones of a church choir and the huffy squawks of displaced birds, the inspectors trudged slowly past orange, peach, apricot and fig trees Sunday, hunting for the squirming specks that could devastate the county's agricultural industry.

One team crouched in the dirt for hours slicing oranges into thin slivers. Sticky juice running down their latex gloves, they cautiously prodded each segment of orange to rustle up any nesting maggots.

Entomologists in Sacramento will examine the specimens, looking for telltale Medfly traits: brown-and-clear stripes on the adult and smooth white surfaces on the larvae.

While his co-workers cut oranges, project assistant Joseph Hendrickson set and checked traps. Yellow boards of sticky paper hung from some trees, baited with an arousing perfume designed to attract male Medflies.

His morning rounds proved fruitless.

Hendrickson started at ground zero--the rambling fig tree with broad, star-shaped leaves and plump green fruits where the first Medflies were found late Thursday. New traps yielded nothing.

A few paces away, he found nothing again. Down the hill--again, nothing.

But he was not surprised to draw blanks. After five years with the Medfly Project, Hendrickson knows his prey can be evasive.

"If we catch one," Hendrickson said, "how many are there that we don't catch?"

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