State on Lookout for Dangerous Citrus Pest

August 11, 2009 7:56:14 PM PDT
The state is stepping up efforts to protect the citrus industry from a devastating pest.The Asian Citrus Psyllid is actually the size of an aphid but it has already caused billions of dollars worth of damage to citrus around the world. Ag officials want to make sure the pest doesn't establish itself in the Valley.

State ag crews weren't cleaning up orange trees in Fresno. They were vacuuming up potential problems. Workers have been busy inspecting traps and setting up new ones as they survey Valley neighborhoods for the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The tiny pest can carry a disease called huanglongbing, or citrus greening.

Ted Batkin of the Citrus Research Board said, "This disease has literally wiped out commercial production in Southeast Asia, in Brazil and now is threatenting the Florida citrus industry."

The disease causes citrus to become bitter and misshapen. It eventually kills the tree. Crews collected pest and plant samples to be bagged and shipped to Sacramento. Inspectors say nutrient deficiencies look a lot like the disease.

The state set up a trapping grid because of a recent discovery by Chelsea, a Fresno County inspection dog. Chelsea and her handler Stephanie LeBarron were checking incoming packages at Fedex a few weeks ago.

Chelsea sniffed out curry leaves inside a duffle bag sent from India. Fresno County Deputy Ag Commissioner Tye Hafner said, "The bag had one dead adult psyllid and nine nymphs, which are small immature insects."

Lab tests revealed the psyllids were carrying the disease. Hafner said, "This is the first time huanglongbing has been intercepted west of the rockies."

The discovery was enough to rattle nerves in the Valley's billion-dollar citrus industry.

Ted Batkin called it "Extremely scary because that's our greatest fear is that the pest will come into the country and be carrying the disease with it."

Deputy Ag Commissioner Hafner says everyone needs to be careful because destructive pests are often spread by humans who bring home produce from outside areas or even overseas.

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