PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The wild blueberry, Maine's most important fruit, could get some help fighting off a pest under legislation proposed by the state's Republican U.S. senator.
Maine is the only state in the country with a significant harvest of wild blueberries, which are smaller cousins to the more ubiquitous cultivated berries. The wild blueberry, which grows in the sprawling barrens of Maine's rural east, is the state's official berry and one of its most significant exports.
The berries are threatened by the spotted wing drosophila, a fruit fly from East Asia first detected in the United States in 2008. The fly was first located in Maine in 2011.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Monday that she has submitted a bill to establish a fund of $6.5 million per year for five years to advance research and reduce the fly's population.
"Maine's wild blueberries are an integral part of our state's heritage and play a major role in our state's economy," Collins said. "The pervasiveness of the spotted wing drosophila has threatened the livelihoods of fruit farmers across the country."
The fly lays eggs in fruit crops such as blueberries and raspberries. It causes more than $700 million in estimated economic loss per year nationwide, Collins said. The fly has also caused increased use of insecticide in fruit crops, she said.
The Collins proposal comes as Maine's wild bluebery crop has recently experienced improvement after a few years of downturn. Farmers harvested more than 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms) of the berries in 2021 after falling short of that number for four years in a row. The crop was also worth more per pound in 2021 than it had been in years, state records show.
The Collins legislation, if approved, would "provide needed resources in the fight against a novel invasive pest insect," said Eric Venturini, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.
Collins introduced the legislation along with Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan and Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana.