Light brown apple moth larvae have been reportedly found in a Watsonville-area berry field, the third discovery in southern Santa Cruz County fields this month.

More of the pests have been trapped in Santa Cruz County than any other Northern California county. All of Santa Cruz County, home to one of California’s three major strawberry regions, is under the state mandated quarantine that now covers more than 3,000 acres.

Relief for grower-shippers could come in the not too distant future.
The required publication of an environmental impact review for the sterile moth program, a joint project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, was printed in newspapers in affected areas early this month, triggering the start of a 30-day comment period, said Larry Hawkins, a Sacramento-based spokesman for the USDA.

“Once the comment period is over, and assuming there are no additional hurdles, we will begin some field evaluation releases in a small area that straddles the Napa-Sonoma counties border,” he said. “Those sterile moth releases could begin in the latter part of July.”

Though the northern bay area has revealed fewer finds of the moths, the area was selected because it offers good testing conditions, Hawkins said.

“It’s kind of a crawl before you walk, walk before you run type deal,” he said. “For these evaluative releases, we need a very uniform cropping area with easy access.”

The chosen site is all vineyard farmland. The data needed to be recovered after the release are much easier to obtain than if the sterile moths were released in an urban area with tall buildings, short buildings, backyards and so forth, Hawkins said.

Hawkins said state and federal researchers are optimistic the sterile moth project will eradicate the pest. But grower-shippers ought not to expect miracles.

“It’s not going to happen right away, because we have a new insect here and there will most likely be some differences,” he said.

The sterile insect approach has worked on other crop destroying pests in the past, Hawkins said.

“The technique has saved growers hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of California over the past 15 years in eradicating infestations of the Medfly and the Mexican fruit fly — and it’s worked on the pink boll worm,” he said.

First identified in Berkeley in early 2007, light brown apple moths have been trapped in more than one dozen counties in and around the San Francisco Bay area. A USDA study found that annual crop damage would be in the billions of dollars should California become generally infested with the apple moth.