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Quarantine Looms for N. County

Quarantine Looms for N. County

Fruit Fly’s Presence Prompts Temporary State of Emergency

BY LEE ZION

Staff Writer

ESCONDIDO , Ben Hillebrecht’s orange and avocado groves on the outskirts of Escondido lie outside the area of a proposed agricultural quarantine in North County. But that doesn’t mean he can relax; his trees could be next.

Ever since several Mexican fruit flies were discovered Nov. 21 in the inland North County community of Valley Center, the area around it has been threatened with a quarantine. A total of 46 fruit flies have been found as of Nov. 27, and the proposed quarantine area has grown.

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The quarantine would be in place for eight months, said Larry Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Hawkins declined to speculate on the exact size of the quarantine area, since it depends on where the fruit flies are found and other factors. When asked to confirm whether the quarantine might encompass 100 square miles, he said the actual area could be much smaller , or larger.

The county Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency in response to the fruit fly infestation. The Nov. 26 declaration will help county officials expedite efforts to eradicate the pest, said John Culea, a spokesman for 5th District Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district encompasses all of inland North County.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said the Mexican fruit fly could cripple the $1.29 billion agriculture industry, the fourth-largest industry in the county.

Two of three largest crops in San Diego County , avocados, at $138.6 million, and citrus, at $64.7 million, are vulnerable to the Mexican fruit fly.

Hillebrecht said the quarantine could destroy the citrus crop within Valley Center, especially navel oranges.

“We couldn’t pick (the crop) during that period of time. Well, we would lose it, because navels have to come off sometime between now and March,” he said.

But Hillebrecht worries less about the quarantine than the Mexican fruit fly itself. If agriculture officials find the fruit fly in a grove, the crops must be destroyed, he said.

“And there’s nobody that pays you for it. So it’s a whole year of your life, and there’s no money. And you still have a lot of expenses , the property taxes, the water and the labor,” Hillebrecht said.

For Larson, these stringent methods to contain the Mexican fruit fly are necessary. The insect can do serious damage to crops.

“The female will lay its eggs in the ripening fruit. When the eggs hatch, the larva emerge,” he said. “So you would open the fruit, and there are all these maggots that are literally eating the fruit from the inside out. Totally destroys the crop, certainly makes it uneatable and is quite disgusting.”

Threat Could Spread

Worse still, the adult Mexican fruit fly, unlike most other fruit flies, is a hardy insect, capable of traveling a mile or more. So they can spread quickly, Larson said.

“So it’s really important to assess the area they’re in and get them contained. Because they can spread pretty significantly, pretty fast,” he said.

Larson noted that the boundaries of the quarantine have yet to be determined, since new infestations of fruit flies are being found every day.

However, so far, the informal boundaries of the quarantine are Interstate 15 on the west, Highway 76 to the north, Pala casino on the east, and the edges of Escondido to the south, Larson said.

It would affect about 1,000 growers, growing roughly $75 million worth of crops. Avocados and citrus are the main crops grown in the area, with some persimmons, pomegranates and other subtropical fruit. All are vulnerable to the Mexican fruit fly, he said.

Avocado growers are fortunate because the fruit can remain on the tree for several months. Farmers can also harvest and ship fruit as early as four months from now, if they undertake a stringent pesticide treatment program while the quarantine is in effect, Larson said.

But citrus growers and other farmers may be out of luck if their crops ripen before the four months are up, he said.

“Some will not be able to take their fruit to market at all. That’s an incredible hardship , after working and investing in their crop for a full year.”

Bigger Than 1999 Infestation

Larson said the Mexican fruit fly was previously found in Fallbrook in 1999. That quarantine cost farmers about $3.5 million in crops that never got to market.

That figure doesn’t take into account the millions of dollars spent in eradicating the pest. Larson doesn’t have figures, but guessed that the efforts of all the farmers, local officials and state and federal experts, if tallied, would run “into the multimillions of dollars.”

This time, the infestation will cost much more, since the Mexican fruit fly is more widespread, he said.

State and federal agriculture officials hope to stop the infestation by introducing 80 million sterile male fruit flies into the area each week. Since females mate only once, the belief is the females will instead mate with sterile males and produce no offspring, eliminating the pest within a few months, Larson said.

Larson added there are some holes in the county’s efforts to prevent the Mexican fruit fly from appearing in San Diego. For one, the insects are native only to central Mexico, so he can only guess as to how they arrived.

“Somehow, some fruit that was infested in central Mexico was obviously brought to the border region, and carried across the border by somebody,” he said. “We continually plead with people not to bring food across the border, but it’s hard to think it came any other way.”

Another hole is that there aren’t enough traps set up to find the fruit flies once they get here, Larson said.

“We did not even find the flies here. They were discovered in fruit that was sold to a juice maker in Arizona,” he said. “When they began squeezing the fruit they began to find maggots in the juice extract. That raised a lot of red flags.”

Only after the shipment was traced back to Valley Center was the infestation discovered. The fact that traps weren’t set up to detect the flies was a “failure,” Larson said.

“If we’d have enough traps out there, regularly monitored and checked by state and federal officials, these flies might have been found when they were first introduced weeks, maybe months ago. Instead, they’ve had an opportunity to be here and that’s why the infestation is so large,” he said

Now that the infestation has been uncovered, everyone must work together to stop it, Larson said.

“We can’t allow this fly to be established in San Diego County,” he said. “If that fly becomes established as a permanent resident, we’re done growing fruit in San Diego County. You can no longer produce fruit here.”

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