Bigger problem than Pfiesteria No magic cure: Restoring the bay's health requires tough lifestyle choices.

September 05, 1997

WHAT THE PUBLIC must understand about Pfiesteria piscicida and whatever else may be sickening the Chesapeake Bay is that no scientist or government can solve this problem.

Yes, the experts need to learn as much as they can quickly about the puzzling Pfiesteria organism and whether it could become a threat beyond the Pocomoke River, where it has killed fish and caused rashes and mild memory loss in a dozen or so people. Many are frightened, even though there is no proof of Pfiesteria beyond the Pocomoke and no sign that it is affecting seafood elsewhere. The more quickly the problem is contained and understood, the less likely needless panic will escalate.

But we delude ourselves if we think that once the officials "get to the bottom of this" they can make everything well again. Ultimately, the question of the bay's health lies with ordinary citizens whose daily lives affect the bay in ways we do not realize, or choose not to think about.

After precipitous deterioriation in the 1960s and 1970s, the bay's decline has been halted thanks to tough regulations on waste disposal, shoreline development and other cleanup strategies. This has bred more complacency than it warrants. We see rockfish on the menu and read that aquatic grasses are making a comeback and think the bay is healthy, when it is only less sick than it was. The bay still has only 10 percent of the grasses it had a century ago.

Experts have little doubt that pollution, especially an excess of chemical nutrients, lies at the root of most of the bay's troubles. For example, scientists strongly suspect a link between nutrients and the toxic behavior of Pfiesteria, a naturally occuring microbe.

These nutrients come from all of us. Agricultural runoff, lawn and garden chemicals, smog from factories and exhaust from automobiles all ends up in the bay.

Before we demand that officials make the bay safe again, we must ask if we are willing to stand behind the difficult changes to make that happen. Would we support tougher regulations on poultry factories whose waste fouls the bay, even if we pay more for chicken at the supermarket? Will we tolerate dandelions in the lawn and take mass transit once a week? Are we willing to subsizide through taxes the planting of ground cover on farmland to reduce runoff, or instead pay higher costs for meat and produce?

If the answer to these questions is "no," we cannot wring our hands the next time someone discovers fish rotting in the water.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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