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Citrus pest is found in San Diego

August 30, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

A tiny insect capable of carrying a disease that could devastate California's $1.2-billion citrus industry has been found in a lemon tree in San Diego, state agriculture officials said Friday.

The identification of the bug as an Asian citrus psyllid in San Diego is preliminary, pending confirmation at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Washington, officials said.

The Asian citrus psyllid has become the primary carrier of citrus greening disease in Florida, where it has killed thousands of acres of orange groves, endangering that state's ranking as the largest U.S. producer of orange juice.

The insect "is a dangerous pest of citrus," said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of California's Department of Food and Agriculture. "We must move quickly to identify the full extent of the infestation and do all we can to protect our state's citrus industry."

The insect was found in a trap about 11 miles north of the Mexican border, near Sweetwater Reservoir. Last month a citrus psyllid was found in orange trees in Tijuana just blocks south of the border.

Inspectors plan to spend the Labor Day weekend setting and checking traps and surveying the area where the insect was found in San Diego in an attempt to detect additional psyllids. A quarantine is likely to be established restricting the movement of citrus plants within five miles of the site.

The psyllid has the potential to quickly spread citrus greening disease, also known as huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease, which eventually kills trees that it infects. Researchers have yet to find a way to treat infected trees.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an industry trade group based in Exeter, said it wasn't yet clear whether the captured insect was a carrier of the disease.

"It might not turn out to be positive. None of the psyllids that were found in Tijuana" tested positive, Nelsen said.

Agriculture officials are developing a program to eradicate the insect species "before the population has a chance to explode," he said.

Industry and state officials have launched a campaign to make the public, especially homeowners with citrus trees and commercial landscapers, aware of the danger. Anyone who may have seen the insect is asked to call the state's exotic-pest hotline at (800) 491-1899. More information can be found at www.californiacitrusthreat.org.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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