Hot line set up to report fish kills Concerns increase with Chesapeake Bay

anglers' input sought

September 10, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Marcia Myers contributed to this article.

Prodded by reports of fish with sores around Chesapeake Bay, officials announced yesterday that the state will expand efforts to look elsewhere for the toxic microbe blamed for killing fish and sickening people in the Pocomoke River.

The Department of Natural Resources set up a 24-hour toll-free number (1-888-584-3110) for anglers to report abnormalities in fish they have caught.

In contrast to the department's earlier treatment of such calls, "rapid-response teams" will check reports indicating the fish are being attacked by the microbe -- Pfiesteria piscicida -- or are suffering from other unusual maladies.

"We don't want to be caught unaware," said Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, who announced the effort at a news conference in Annapolis.

A 7-mile stretch of the Pocomoke River in Somerset County remains closed to fishing and swimming, although state biologists reported finding only two menhaden out of 150 fish sampled yesterday that had the dime-sized bleeding sores typical of Pfiesteria attacks.

State scientists continue to believe that Pfiesteria-related fish lesions and human health problems are limited to the lower Pocomoke. Officials contend the sick-looking fish that anglers have been seeing elsewhere in the bay were either scraped by fishing nets or are suffering from "normal" bacterial and fungal infections.

But Kim Coble, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who participated in the news conference, said: "We are getting an increased reporting of abnormalities in fish."

Though not a scientific sampling, reports from veteran fishermen indicate they are seeing more sick-looking fish this year than ever before, Coble said.

Griffin said he hopes the hot line will help allay the public's concerns about fish health in the rest of the bay. But the natural resources secretary said he also wants anglers' help in keeping a lookout for any new outbreaks of Pfiesteria.

The department's move drew praise from JoAnn Burkholder, the North Carolina scientist who helped identify Pfiesteria eight years ago. Speaking from her laboratory in Raleigh, she said that while she has not seen any evidence that Pfiesteria-type organisms are harming fish or people beyond the Pocomoke, she could not rule it out.

She praised the state's hot line and sampling teams as "excellent preventive measures."

Burkholder also said she had verified that either Pfiesteria or a closely related organism was involved in the prolonged fish kill Aug. 26 through Aug. 28 on the lower Pocomoke.

The elusive, single-celled dinoflagellate has been blamed for killing up to 30,000 fish in the river this summer, as well as causing rashes, respiratory problems and memory loss among watermen and state environmental technicians working on the river.

Bay foundation officials welcomed the hot line, pointing out that they had called on the state nearly two weeks ago to set up an early warning system for detecting abnormalities in fish around the bay.

"We need to look elsewhere because we want to avoid what happened in the Pocomoke," said Thomas Grasso, the foundation's Maryland director.

DNR set up an automated hot line in late May for anglers to report abnormalities in the fish they were catching, and the agency received 430 calls from around the state through the end of August.

Prompted by those reports, about 30 striped bass found in various parts of the bay are being studied. However, state scientists say the fish apparently are suffering from a bacterial infection that has been occurring in the bay since 1992.

Examination of abnormalities among white perch in the Magothy, South and Severn rivers revealed that most were from net injuries rather than infectious agents, according to the DNR.

State biologists believe that if there is an increase in diseased fish in the bay, the conditions may stem from stress the fish experienced. Factors could be last year's unusually wet weather or lack of food for the record-high populations of certain species such as striped bass.

On the new hot line, callers will be interviewed about where and when they caught abnormal-looking fish, and precisely what the fish looked like, said Maj. Mike Howard of the Natural Resources Police.

Those calls, at least 20 of which were taken by yesterday, will be reviewed daily by experts, and one of four teams of biologists with DNR or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be dispatched to sample fish and water.

Water samples have been taken from the Patuxent River, where researchers with the Academy of Natural Sciences laboratory reported collecting fish that later died in their private, nonprofit laboratory near Prince Frederick. Pfiesteria were found in the fish tank, for the third time in the past three years.

Meanwhile, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican whose 1st District spans the bay, reported yesterday that a congressional hearing has been scheduled Oct. 9 in Washington to review reports of fish ailments and die-offs along the Atlantic Coast.

The House Resources subcommittee on fisheries conservation, wildlife and oceans, of which Gilchrest is a member, has slated the session.

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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