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September 11, 2007

State considers spraying Santa Cruz for apple moth

By TOM RAGAN
SENTINEL STAFF WRITER

SANTA CRUZ With aerial spraying to combat the light brown apple moth starting this week in Monterey County, it's only a matter of time before the state Department of Food and Agriculture comes up with a treatment plan for Santa Cruz County, the most infested area in California.

Whether that plan includes spraying a female scent that lures the male moth away from females moths, as is the case in Monterey, is not yet certain. But so far state officials are saying they know of no alternative.

On Monday, Steve Lyle, a spokesman with the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said the department will announce its course of action in two to three weeks. He said public hearings will be held so the public knows about it.

"This apple moth is a significant threat to the environment and the food supply, not only to the state but to the country," Lyle said. "We're approaching this whole thing like it's a forest fire. We're starting at the perimeter, which would be Monterey County, and we're working our way inward. And in the case of Santa Cruz County, there's a lot of burning and smoke right now. It's clear that we need to take action in Santa Cruz"

The last time there was any sort of aerial eradication efforts in the county some residents left town on buses to avoid it. That was back in the early 1980s, when the Med fly, a fruit fly, threatened crops here. Over the past month in Monterey County, residents have showed up at public hearings in droves to protest the spraying, but to no avail.

"This kind of spraying poses no threat to humans, animals, even the moths themselves," Lyle said, adding the female scent, known as a pheromone, merely distracts the male moths, thus disrupting the mating cycle.

Yet many are questioning whether anything needs to be done about the light brown apple moth.

The moth has yet to cause significant damage to crops since it was first spotted in a trap in Berkeley in February. But the state, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, insists the potential for destruction is ever present, to the tune of $133 million across California.

The fact is, agriculture officials say, the moth has an insatiable appetite, as has been proven in its native countries of New Zealand and Australia, where it has been known to feed on some 150 plants, fruit and vegetables, causing millions of dollars in crop damage.

Over the course of eight months here the moth has managed to flutter and reproduce its way into eight counties along the Central Coast and Northern California. How they managed to come into California is still a mystery, but some believe it may have simply hopped aboard some imported plants from Australia or Hawaii.

The vast majority of moths appear to be in Santa Cruz County, where at last count almost 6,400 have been trapped. San Francisco comes in a distant second with 480 months, while 457 moths have been trapped in Monterey County.

Isolated and detected mostly amid the region's nurseries, nursery growers are the ones who have so far suffered the greatest setbacks not due to the bug's voracious appetite but to the restrictions that have been placed on nursery shipments.

Some growers theorize, however, that the moth has been around for at least two years but its presence was never verified. They think the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are overreacting to the presence of an insect whose greatest financial inflictions have occurred abroad.

"I wonder if this really is the moth of mass destruction that everybody's saying it is," says Jeff Rosendale, the owner of Sierra Azul Nursery in Watsonville. "But if aerial spraying can ultimately help control the population, that could be a benefit to us nursery growers. What we need is less pressure on our growing grounds"

As it is now, Rosendale and dozens of other nurseries in the county, if they want to avert closing shop when the moths are detected, have no choice but to spray their plants with a chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used in agricultural circles, traces of which occasionally show up in waterways, where it is toxic to fish, according to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Unfortunately, it's the only known pesticide that kills the moth at all stages of life, enabling nursery growers to turn around and ship their plants without having to wait 10 days while softer insecticides take effect.

"It's one of those old-school chemicals that was once used for termites and ants but isn't any longer," Rosendale said.

Compare that dilemma with aerial spraying.

The cost of the spraying in Monterey County, conducted in airplanes at 500 to 800 feet off the ground, has been estimated at $1.9 million, Lyle said. He said there's a total $17 million left for similar aerial treatments in the infested counties, $15 million of which is being paid for by the USDA, while the state is picking up the remaining $2 million.

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz County leaders are sure to scrutinize any plan for aerial spraying.

"Only if it's absolutely necessary," said county Supervisor Jan Beautz, whose district includes Soquel, the region in the county hit hardest by the moths.

Contact Tom Ragan at tragan@santacruzsentinel.com.

Apple moth populations

A total of 7,744 light brown apple moths have been trapped in California since February, the vast majority in Santa Cruz County. The light brown apple moth, native to Australia, is known to feed on 250 plants, fruits and vegetables.

The following is a breakdown of the top six counties where they've been found and their numbers:

Santa Cruz: 6,392.

San Franicsco: 480.

Monterey: 457.

Alameda: 25.

Contra Costa: 92.

Marin: 92.

SOURCE: California Department of Food and Agriculture

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