Caution on the bay for holiday Fears: Concerns that a toxic microorganism has moved north may limit activity on the Chesapeake Bay. But state officials say the water's fine.

September 01, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

KENT ISLAND -- Rob Papa wasn't about to let a funny-named, toxic microorganism keep him from making a holiday buck. As he'd done all summer, Papa waded into knee-deep waters yesterday to lease personal watercraft near Kent Island -- on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay.

Papa doesn't fear a Pfiesteria piscicida-linked illness that has struck 13 people about 70 miles to the south. He even joked about one of its symptoms, memory loss. "Some things are better to forget," said Papa, who reports slow sales of late.

In and around the bay this Labor Day weekend, entrepreneurs and vacationers coped with fears that unhealthy water had somehow crept north from the Pocomoke River.

Anglers reeled with worry, ready to cut their lines at the sight of lesions. Boaters who usually cool off with a dip stayed on board. And Junior Sadler, a 59-year-old Chesapeake Bay clammer, was on the Eastern Shore, awaiting test results on the rash on his left arm.

Their fears about the bay are unfounded, state officials stressed yesterday. To underscore the point, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his wife are scheduled to fish in the bay nearAnnapolis at 1 p.m. today. The governor has also scheduled a 3: 30 p.m. news conference at Sandy Point State Park, where the fishing party will dock after the fishing trip.

So far this weekend, officials are reporting normal Labor Day activity on the bay.

"There are lots of people out there having a good time," said John Surrick, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

He said that's just what they should be doing, adding: "We have seen no evidence of Pfiesteria lesions [on fish] other than the Pocomoke" on the southern tip of the Eastern Shore.

There were two fish kills on the Pocomoke last month. And late last week, scientists linked the flu-like illnesses of 13 people along the Pocomoke with Pfiesteria piscicida, a toxic microorganism that was linked to huge fish kills in North Carolina.

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a seven-mile stretch of the Pocomoke remained closed -- and very quiet -- yesterday.

To the north, though, vacationers hit the bay -- albeit with some concern about Pfiesteria.

"It's on everyone's mind," said Bill Kelly of Lutherville, vacationing near Kent Island.

At the island's CastleHarbor Marina, Pfiesteria has been the talk around morning coffee. The marina's manager, Elizabeth Pafel, said the pool is more crowded than normal -- an indication boaters are swimming less in the rivers feeding the bay.

Bob Target, whose 39-foot pleasure boat is docked at CastleHarbor, said on warm days like yesterday he usually goes several miles up the Chester River, drops anchor and takes a swim. This year he's staying dry.

"There's a problem on the Pocomoke, and I think it's coming this way," he said.

He cited recent news accounts: A 53-year-old man who goes crabbing on the Chester River gets lesions on his legs and the left side of his body swells. An experienced angler who fishes near the Bay Bridge and says he's never seen so many sickly and disfigured fish.

Said Target, "This is how it started on the Pocomoke just a couple of fish dying."

Surrick, the DNR spokesman, said fish routinely develop sores and lesions from other sources besides Pfiesteria -- brush burns, for example.

Anglers working the shores had mixed opinions.

Under the Kent Narrows draw bridge, Rick Hudak said he'd caught two fish earlier this summer that had burgundy-colored sores.

"It looked a whole lot like if you slid into second base with shorts on -- three days later," said Hudak, who lives in Bel Air in Harford County and helps build golf courses.

But he wasn't worried because he has caught more than 100 normal fish this summer: "The percentage [of sores] is crazy low."

Steve "Beef" Ridgell, 27, agreed. He had been crabbing and fishing in recent weeks near Kent Island and farther south on the Choptank River. "Nothing looked bad," he said. "No scabs. No sores. No mutations. No three eyes."

Junior Sadler, the clammer with the rash on his arm, is an experienced waterman who knows that fish occasionally have relatively harmless spots and lesions. But that doesn't make his itchy rash any easier to look at.

"I don't know what it is, but the doctor doesn't either," Sadler said.

He said he harvests clams throughout the Chesapeake Bay. His business hasn't been affected by the Pfiesteria scare, he said, because most of his buyers to the northeast know little about it.

Sadler said his doctor took two small skin samples from his arm Monday. He expects to visit his doctor again this week.

Taking a more relaxed opinion of things was Richard Dunn, fishing along a bank at Kent Narrows.

"I look at it this way," said Dunn, drawing on a cigarette, baiting his hook and waving his arms. "If I pull in a fish that is real nasty looking, I'll cut the line."

Maintaining the same attitude were five personal watercraft riders who showed up at Rob Papa's rental stand about noon yesterday and laid down $180 for three crafts for three hours.

That was just fine with Papa, who was hoping for a big Labor Day weekend to boost sales that have slowed since the Pocomoke fish kills.

Where to call

The state urges people who believe they have Pfiesteria-related symptoms to call a hot line operated by the Maryland Infection Control Network. The toll-free number is answered between 8 a.m. and midnight. Call 1-888-258-8989.

The Department of Natural Resources has created a second toll-free line -- 1-888-448-0012 -- to call if fish are caught anywhere in the state with bleeding lesions around their anal vents.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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