Unwanted imports: 'I'm a fruit cop. We look for bugs.'

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A bedazzled cockroach, a monkey and a freezer full of illegally caught redfish: Those are just a few of the things that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have come across in their work to prevent invasive species and animal diseases from entering the country through the Port of New Orleans.

While the list might sound like the beginning of a bad joke, the work of agriculture specialists with the border agency is no laughing matter. It's a key bulwark in preventing invasive pests from wreaking havoc on crops and natural resources in the U.S.

It's happened before, many times. To name just one infamous example: Scientists say Formosan termites likely entered the U.S. after World War II on ships carrying military equipment back from East Asia. Formosan infestations are now estimated to cause $1 billion in damage to property every year.

The specialists at the port must have a background in biological science and are trained to find and identify invasive insect species and other potential threats to agriculture.

Earlier this month, agents in New Orleans found Asian gypsy moth egg masses on a Panamanian ship that had earlier docked in Kobe, Japan. Each dime-sized egg mass can carry more than 1,000 eggs, which can grow into ravenous caterpillars that feed on more than 500 tree and shrub species.

If a vessel docks in a country where the moths live — such as China, Japan, South Korea or Russia — between May and September, it is inspected prior to leaving that country and again upon arriving in the U.S., said agriculture specialist Edward Horvath.

"It's probably the worst pest that we deal with," he said.

The dreaded moths can defoliate trees, leaving them more susceptible to disease and other infestations. They can quickly spread, in part because the females are capable of flying up to 20 miles.

Over time, the moths can wipe out large sections of forests, orchards and landscaping, said Heather Curlett, a communication manager with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Asian gypsy moths have been found and eradicated in Oregon, Washington, Georgia and South Carolina.

This season has been "particularly bad," Horvath said. New Orleans officials have found moth masses on four or five ships this year, he said.

When the inspectors find egg masses, they send a sample to an entomologist in Kenner to confirm their identity and to find out whether the eggs are viable. If they are, the officials will try to clean off every egg mass they see on the vessel. If they believe that the infestation is too great, the ship can be sent back out of U.S. waters until the crew can manually scrape off all the masses and incinerate them.

But moths aren't the only pest that agriculture specialists are on the lookout for. They search for all sorts of possible hitchhikers coming in on commercial ships, cruise lines and personal luggage at the airport.

In their searches, they've come across some interesting sights. Terenza Lightell, who has been an agriculture specialist for 11 years, once saw a cruise line passenger try to bring a decorated live hissing cockroach through customs. "It had pretty little jewels on it," she said.

Khapra beetles, red palm mites and illegally caught fish are among the officials' targets. When such animals slip through and get a toehold here — whether it's the snakehead fish, the carp, the Burmese python or the zebra mussel — they can forever alter American ecosystems.

Just knowing how many varieties of bugs can hide in fruits and vegetables has made some of the specialists more careful about how they consume produce at home, said Lauren Morgan, who has been an agriculture specialist for two years.

"I am more cautious about the items that I pick up from the grocery store, just from inspecting produce and knowing what can be there," she said. "I wash more thoroughly."

Yet, explaining the importance of their job can be difficult, especially to travelers who don't understand why their meat and produce pose risks to U.S. agriculture and natural resources, Lightell said. She tries to keep the explanation simple.

"I'm a fruit cop," she said. "We look for bugs."


Information from: The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.nola.com