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Fruit fly search broadens; none found

Agriculture specialists placed hundreds of traps in St. Petersburg on Friday in a broadening search for evidence of the oriental fruit fly, an exotic pest that could pose a major threat to state agriculture.

Ten experts with the state Department of Agriculture set 400 traps in an 80-square-mile zone around a tree where an Oriental fruit fly was found by a biological scientist Tuesday.

"They're putting the rest of them out and checking what's out there already," said Maeve McConnell, spokeswoman for the Division of Plant Industry.

On Friday, the first day of a 90-day hunt, no new evidence was found.

"That's good news," McConnell said.

The fly probably was brought here by someone who traveled recently to Hawaii or the Far East, officials said.

Agriculture officials are taking the possibility of infestation seriously and could spend up to $100,000 just to make sure there are no other Oriental fruit flies around.

Eventually, they could spend millions to kill the flies.

Oriental fruit fly larvae eat citrus, tomatoes, avocadoes and other Florida crops. At worst, other states and nations could refuse to import Florida fruit and vegetables, devastating the state's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.

If no other Oriental fruit flies are found within the 90 days, specialists will assume no others are around.

If another one is found, the state would began eradication, which could cost several million dollars, officials have said.

Tuesday's find is the fourth time an Oriental fruit fly has been found in Florida. The first was in 1964, also in St. Petersburg; the next in 1969 in Miami; and in Fort Lauderdale last December. In each case, just one fly was found.

An eradication program in Miami for the Mediterranean fruit fly cost $1.5-million in 1990, but no one knows what it might cost to wipe out the Oriental fruit fly.

The current concern was triggered when one male Oriental fruit fly was found in a trap in a tree at 41st Avenue and 11th Street N in St. Petersburg. The state sets such traps to check for the presence of exotic pests.

About 25 traps have been set in the 1-square mile around the tree.

The rest were set in the 80-square-mile area outside the immediate zone. Pinellas already had about 80 traps hung in trees around the county as part of the program.