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Biosecurity officials will be setting traps in Auckland suburbs and restricting the movement of fruit today following the discovery of a Queensland fruit fly.
The single male fruit fly was discovered in Mt Roskill this week, and efforts are now being made to establish if there is a more general infestation.
If the pest has spread, experts say, it could devastate the fruit industry - requiring an eradication response that could include aerial spraying and a halt to lucrative exports of many at-risk fruits.
A biosecurity researcher said the threat was similar to the one foot-and-mouth disease posed to the meat industry.
But one horticultural industry figure has warned against overreacting until an infestation has been confirmed.
A team from the Ministry of Primary Industries will be in Mt Roskill and Avondale today, and inspectors will visit homes to set traps and give residents notices telling them to keep fresh fruit and vegetables in containers.
Ministry spokesman Andrew Coleman said no areas would be cordoned off, but restricted-place notices would be put up barring people from taking fresh fruit and vegetables outside the restricted areas.
Mr Coleman asked for residents to support the operation.
"The Queensland fruit fly is hugely invasive and a serious risk to New Zealand."
The fly, also known as Q'fly, is considered Australia's most serious insect pest of fruit and vegetable crops.
The fly was caught on Tuesday in one of 7500 traps that form part of the ministry's surveillance trapping system and was identified by ministry staff on Wednesday night.
Primary Industries Minister David Carter said the fruit fly could have come in bulk imports of fresh fruit from Queensland or through the airport.
Mr Carter said relevant trade partners were being notified. The focus for ministry staff would be whether it was a single insect or if a breeding population had been established.
Bob Tait, a director of conservation group Friends of the Earth and a biosecurity researcher, last night told the Herald the horticultural industry had correctly described fruit fly as its "foot and mouth".
"It's of the same level of significance. At the moment they have found only one, a male, but if they find a single female there will most likely be a lockdown of all exports of fruit fly host produce, which is a very wide range."
It would hold up kiwifruit going to Japan as well as pip fruit, stone fruit, tomatoes and other export produce that would be shut out of airports and ports for months.
Mr Tait said there was no specific counter measure for the pest so it was probable an aerial spray with "quite a toxic insecticide" would be needed over Greater Auckland.
"That would kill quite a lot of other insects as well as fruit fly and wouldn't be very good for people, either."
Mr Tait thought it was highly likely other fruit flies were in Auckland.
"They're not particularly solo creatures. I think the likelihood is high there will be others here. "
Alastair Petrie, general manager of produce company Turners & Growers, said the discovery was a concern, but he did not want to over-react before an infestation had been found.
"The fact that it has been found in a trap shows surveillance works. There are a million different pathways - through machinery, personal containers, produce.
"With it being in a residential area, touch wood it's certainly manageable."
Minister Carter defended the government's biosecurity record, saying staff had intercepted the fruit fly at the border 53 times and prevented it becoming established.
It had been detected twice before in New Zealand - in Northland in 1995 and in Auckland in 1996 - and the threat nullified.
But in Parliament yesterday afternoon, Labour biosecurity spokesman Damien O'Connor said the discovery showed a breach that threatened New Zealand's $3.3 billion-a-year fruit and vegetable export industry.
"The fact it has made its way to our shores is evidence of an absolute failure of our biosecurity system and of this Government to protect our horticulture industry."
Aerial spraying campaigns were needed in 1996 to eradicate the white-spotted tussock moth in Auckland's eastern suburbs and, between 1999 and 2003, the painted apple moth in the western suburbs.
* Cost Australian fruit growers more than $100 million a year.
* Attack most fruit and vegetables but especially citrus, berries and stone fruits.
* Eggs hatch into white larvae in ripening fruit.
* Larvae eat their way towards the centre of fruit, which decays.
* Adult emerges after about two weeks.
* Scientific name Bactrocera tryoni.
* Native to eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales.
* Length about 5mm to 8mm.