Officials let watermen retrieve gear Several enter closed stretch of Pocomoke, dump catch

State plans reimbursement

Cooler weather may have brought end to fish kill

September 05, 1997|By D. Quentin Wilber | D. Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

As the fish kill afflicting the lower Pocomoke River appeared to end yesterday, officials allowed watermen to briefly enter the 7-mile closed stretch to retrieve their gear.

About six pulled in their traps, most of which were full, and dumped their catch overboard. As the fishermen and crabbers worked, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources decided reimburse them for their losses.

For the past week, watermen have been hit hard by the closing of the river because they could neither sell their catch nor move their equipment from the Pocomoke to fish elsewhere.

Last night, officials could not estimate the amount of the reimbursement.

Since the beginning of August, a microorganism, Pfiesteria piscicida, has killed thousands of fish and sickened dozens of people who have come into contact with the water, scientists believe.

The watermen who were allowed onto the river yesterday were urged to wear protective coverings as a health precaution, but it was not clear how many followed the instructions.

Experts said yesterday morning's cooler weather -- temperatures were in the 50s -- probably quelled the microorganism.

"The cold weather is certainly one theory," said W. Peter Jensen, the DNR's deputy director of fisheries services. "We still don't [know] why it really stopped."

Researchers said they were also unsure whether they had been dealing with a new kill that began Wednesday or the lingering effects of a slow kill that began Aug. 26.

On Aug. 29, officials closed the river from its mouth to Powell Wharf Road after doctors linked the microbe's toxins to illnesses suffered by watermen and others, including four state employees who were exposed while sampling the water.

Yesterday, at the river's mouth, at Cedar Hall Wharf -- the center of the recent kills -- and a mile north of Cedar Hall revealed only one fish with lesions, said microbe hunter Jack Howard, who is paid by DNR to monitor the river.

Virginia researchers found sick menhaden at two spots along the river, but no other species were affected, officials said. The largest number of sick fish -- 22 out of 24 menhaden -- was found in the Virginia portion of Pocomoke Sound, where 2,000 fish died Aug. 26.

"This kill is definitely not ongoing," said Frank Daniel, regional director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's Tidewater office.

Virginia will allow its watermen to retrieve their traps tomorrow, said Capt. Randy Widgeon of the Marine Patrol, who expected 10 to 15 watermen to participate.

Virginia hasn't decided whether to reimburse its watermen, said Wilford Kale, senior staff adviser to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "We haven't even had any requests for reimbursement yet," Kale said. "There has been some discussion in reaction to Maryland's decision."

Maryland waterman Eddie Johnson dumped fish from 13 traps yesterday.

Waterman Robert Edward Daniels emptied his 200 pots last week, before Maryland officially closed the river. He said the 100 peeler crabs he dumped overboard were worth about $1 apiece.

He said the DNR won't reimburse him because he retrieved his pots too early. "My dad, they are going to reimburse him about $5 a pot," Daniels said. "That's pretty good. I guess I'm not lucky."

Some watermen said they wouldn't come back to work the Pocomoke River this year even if the river was deemed safe.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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