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Medfly Pessimists Say Victory Impossible : Agriculture: Ventura County infestation underscores tenacity of insect. The pest has surfaced elsewhere in California after each claim of eradication.

October 10, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — Fruit will be quarantined. Fields will be sprayed. Flies will be trapped.

But will Ventura County ever be rid of the dreaded Medfly?

That question has sent bug experts from across the state buzzing to their file cabinets, as they root through case histories from the past 15 years in search of battle plans and crystal balls.

Most Medfly specialists approve of the county's attack so far--the intensive trapping efforts, the quarantine on fruit grown near the infestation, the plans for aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion. They differ sharply, however, when it comes to predicting results.

Optimists say Ventura County will slide out of the crisis quickly, with minimal damage, by killing every last Mediterranean fruit fly in the next half a year. "I am confident that we (can) achieve eradication," said Douglas Hendrix, spokesman for a joint state and federal task force charged with battling the Medfly.

But other experts dismiss such bullish assurances. In their grim view, Ventura County is doomed to suffer wave after wave of infestation during the next few decades, a devastating cycle that could ultimately crush the county's agricultural industry, worth $848 million in crop sales.

"Of all the counties that have been infested, there has never, never, never been one that was dis-infested," warned Jim Carey, a professor of entomology at UC Davis.

"This is a creeping fungus that continually moves to expand its range, yard by yard, property by property."

Farmers, scientists, environmentalists and bureaucrats have studied the Medfly since its first appearance in Southern California in 1975. They have tracked the blue-eyed pests from feast to feast, battling the fruit-gobbling insects from Santa Clara to San Diego.

But for all their research, they have failed to reach consensus on three key questions:

How does the Medfly flit from county to county?

How well do eradication programs work?

How can bug zappers vanquish the voracious insects without harming the people who live nearby?

Spot eradication programs have won praise in half a dozen counties. A combination of quarantines, aerial and ground spraying, and the release of sterilized Medflies diminishes the pest population dramatically--for a time.

But as soon as state officials triumphantly declare that they have achieved eradication, the Medfly crops up elsewhere. Like the plastic gophers in county fair games, which sink under a hammer blow to the head and then pop up grinning in an adjacent hole, the Medfly seems invincible.

In the summer of 1990, for example, officials said they had succeeded in banishing the pest from Southern California. Just one year later, a pregnant Medfly was discovered in a peach tree near Koreatown in Los Angeles. An intensive trapping effort uncovered 200 more Medflies in the area by 1992.

The Medfly's survival skill taunts activists such as Lisabeth Hush, who suffered eye irritation, accelerated heartbeat and other symptoms during the 1989 malathion spraying over the Los Angeles Basin.

Hush believes the government's anti-Medfly policies are more show than substance. The spraying may prove to Japanese trading partners that California is tough on pests, she says, but it does not conquer the Medfly.

"There is no entomology in California," Hush said. "It's all based on politics."

But state and federal officials insist that they can--and do--eradicate the Medfly.

The problem, they said, is that the Medfly is constantly reintroduced, despite the strict quarantines. Tourists may smuggle in maggot-ridden tomatoes from Central America. Hawaiians may send fly-infested papayas to relatives in Los Angeles.

That's all it takes. Within months, the fast-breeding critters can produce enough offspring to spark another crisis.

"Nothing makes me madder than people bringing fruit back from Hawaii," said Deena Gerry, whose family has tended a citrus grove near Camarillo since the 1930s.

Her son, Will Gerry, added: "People pick up mangoes in Hawaii, stuff them into their suitcases, and then when they get home and open them they say, 'Eeew, look at these bugs,' and throw them in the trash."

Unless infested produce is double-bagged, sealed and placed in covered containers, the maggots can crawl out and begin breeding.

The state and the federal government try to prevent such accidental infestations by policing quarantine boundaries to be sure no one illegally transports fruit.

Fruit-sniffing beagles at Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Long Beach inspect baggage in an effort to root out contraband and enforce the 1,500-square-mile quarantine zone that spans four counties in the Los Angeles Basin. In the past, federal officials have even launched sting operations at local post offices to check for fruit sent in parcels.

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