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A light brown apple moth is shown In this undated photo. (AP Photo/California Department of Food and Agriculture)

State officials have called off the much-maligned aerial sprayings in populated areas they had planned to restart this summer to combat the invasion of the light brown apple moth.

California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura and U.S. Department of Agriculture official Cindy Smith announced the decision at a news conference Thursday.

They said instead of the aerial spraying of synthetic pheromone — which had caused public concern — to fight the moth, their agencies would rely on ground methods to battle the insect, including releasing sterile moths to throw off the insect's reproduction cycle.

"I'm very happy with any decision that uses nontoxic methods instead of exposing humans to potentially harmful chemicals," said John Russo, founder of the group Stop The Spray.

The state had planned to spray a synthetic pheromone called CheckMate LBAM-F over areas infested with the invasive insect. Kawamura said Thursday, however, the spraying will only occur over nondeveloped areas, inaccessible by people.

Kawamura said now the state will fight the moth by releasing millions of sterile male moths, in addition to other ground methods such as twist ties infused with CheckMate LBAM-F, which is supposed to disrupt mating. Kawamura said the change in strategy was made because of advancements the state has made in rearing sterile apple moths.

During the conference call Thursday, Kawamura called the change "very good, progressive news."

The state's decision to call off the controversial spraying follows months of protests, petitions and lawsuits from across the state.

Kawamura admitted he found the public outcry "troubling" and said it showed his agency had to perform more outreach.

Russo said he felt the grass-roots efforts of his group and others in recent months had an effect.

"I think it had a tremendous effect," Russo said. "If you look back at their statements from a few months ago, they are certainly different now."

Congressman Sam Farr, D-Carmel, a leading voice against the spray, released a statement Thursday applauding Kawamura's announcement.

"The bottom line for eradicating this pest has always been safety," Farr said. "The public was never convinced that spraying was safe. ... CDFA was correct to recognize that aerial application was becoming a distraction. A shift in strategy was the right move."

The announcement comes two months after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced spraying would be suspended all over the state until a series of health tests on the pheromone used was completed.

Before the governor's declaration, spraying in the East Bay was slated to start Aug. 1.

Spraying was expected to start this summer and continue for five years over San Francisco, parts of San Mateo and Marin counties, and Oakland, Piedmont, Albany, Emeryville, Richmond, Berkeley, El Cerrito and El Sobrante. Agriculture officials had planned on spraying in most western Contra Costa communities.

The state began spraying CheckMate in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties last year to fight the light brown apple moth. Agriculture leaders say the moth could cause millions of dollars of damage to crops if not eradicated, and disrupt international trade.

The light brown apple moth, a native of Australia, has been found in New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Classified as invasive, it is known to damage or destroy more than 250 species of plants, including most fruit trees and many species of ornamental plants, and oak trees, pine trees and redwoods. It was first discovered in California in Berkeley in February 2007.

Reach Chris Metinko at 510-763-5418 or cmetinko@bayareanewsgroup.com.