Diseased fish in Pocomoke worry Shore watermen Scientists suspect isolated episode

March 29, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Diseased fish have been turning up in the nets of Pocomoke River watermen, touching off alarm along the Lower Eastern Shore -- but scientists say there appears to be no major cause for concern and no threat to human health.

The fish have been found with lesions, usually on their middles -- "like somebody poured acid on them," in the words of one commercial fisherman.

"We think it's one of those isolated, episodic things," said Steve Jordan, director of the Oxford Cooperative Laboratory in Talbot County, where the problem is being studied. "There wouldn't be any danger in eating these fish."

It appears there is a fungus associated with the lesions, which are scientifically known as "ulcerative mycosis." But what scientists have not yet figured out is whether the fungus causes the lesions or if a third factor is at work.

Jordan said the Oxford lab, a cooperative venture of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service, began investigating reports of diseased fish in the fall.

Pocomoke waterman Ray Maddox reported increasing numbers of the diseased fish in his nets in late October.

"We've seen a little bit of this for the last couple of years," Maddox said. "But last fall, almost every trap [net] had seven, eight, nine, 10."

Maddox said he had seen the lesions on several kinds of river fish, including catfish, perch, crappies and bluegills.

Maddox, one of the owners of Fred W. Maddox and Sons Seafood in Somerset County, said he fishes the Pocomoke River regularly, bringing in anywhere from 200 to 1,000 pounds of fish in a day.

As fishing season nears, Maddox said he hopes the biologists will be able to find the source of the disease. Jordan said that lab scientists may go out with watermen later in the spring to look again at the diseased fish.

He emphasized that, despite widespread rumor on the Lower Shore, the fungus associated with the lesions on the Pocomoke fish is not related to a North Carolina algae that has killed many fish farther south.

The algae found in North Carolina has been identified in a few places in the Chesapeake, Jordan said. "However, we have never associated it with any fish kills -- and it's nothing like what we saw in these fish," he said.

Jordan said there has been nothing to indicate widespread incidence of the lesions. The lab may do independent sampling this year.

"All I can say is, we're going to keep an eye on it," he said.

Anyone who finds fish with lesions or other skin wounds is asked to call the Oxford Cooperative Lab at 410-226-0078.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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