Another bay tributary is closed for fish illness Lesions raise fears of Pfiesteria spread

September 11, 1997|By Michael Dresser and Timothy B. Wheeler | Michael Dresser and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening closed a second Chesapeake Bay tributary yesterday after state officials in Somerset County found a large number of fish with "Pfiesteria-type lesions" similar to those found in the Pocomoke River.

Glendening told reporters yesterday evening that King's Creek, a small stream that runs into the Manokin River on the Eastern Shore, had been closed to fishing and recreational use "because of the potential health problems."

If confirmed as Pfiesteria, the outbreak would be the first to occur beyond the lower Pocomoke in a natural setting in Maryland.

Another difference is the location at the headwaters of a river rather than at the mouth. The site is about 15 miles north of Pocomoke Sound.

The creek was closed at 7 p.m. after state environmental officials were dispatched to a section of the creek near Princess Anne where fish appeared to be sick.

The fish were not dead, but appeared to have lesions and were swiming close to the surface, state officials said.

At least several hundred and "maybe as many as thousands" of the fish appeared to be affected, said Ray Feldmann, a Glendening spokesman.

State officials were alerted to the problem yesterday on a toll-free number set up to monitor the bay's problems, he said.

The hot line had been made public Tuesday.

The governor said the apparent outbreak of Pfiesteria in King's Creek would have to be confirmed by laboratory tests, but he held out little hope the results would be negative.

"The situation is exactly the same as what unfolded on the Pocomoke," he said. "It clearly appears to be headed for the same conclusion."

Glendening called the news "distressing" because it involves an entirely separate watershed from the Pocomoke.

"It emphasizes the seriousness of the problem and the urgency of the need for a solution," he said.

People who came into contact with Pfiesteria toxins in the waters of the Pocomoke were found to have suffered memory loss and other health effects. A 7-mile stretch of that river remains closed after a series of fish kills caused by the toxic microorganism this summer.

Glendening said the King's Creek fish that had apparent Pfiesteria lesions were menhaden, the same species that bore the brunt of the outbreak on the Pocomoke.

In a somber statement, the governor said there was "no evidence whatsoever" of a Pfiesteria problem in the bay itself or its major tributaries such as the Potomac or Choptank rivers.

"The bay is safe. The seafood is safe," he emphasized. Glendening added that so far there have been no reports of health problems as a result of exposure to the waters of King's Creek.

Beyond that, Glendening made little effort to play down the implications of an apparent Pfiesteria outbreak in another watershed.

"I am, quite candidly, very concerned about this because to the extent it was in the Pocomoke we were looking for the possibility of one isolated source of pollution," he said. "This is a different watershed and therefore suggests a broader-based problem."

The incident comes only a week after state scientists outlined why they believed the Pfiesteria outbreak seemed to be limited to the Pocomoke. Robert Magnien, director of tidewater ecosystems assessment at the Department of Natural Resources, said the Pocomoke appeared to be uniquely vulnerable to the toxic microbes, in part because of its sluggish flow and shallow mouth.

Magnien said last night that he had no ready explanation for why fish in the Manokin headwaters might be succumbing.

He also cautioned that Pfiesteria had not been positively connected to the illness.

"We will be taking water samples and start to follow up on what the possible causes were," he said.

He said no signs of Pfiesteria had been found in the Manokin itself.

But Pfiesteria was found last summer in Anthony Mazzaccaro's fish ponds near Princess Anne, which drew water from the Manokin.

About 20,000 hybrid striped bass died in Mazzaccaro's ponds at Hyrock Farm last summer, although state officials could never confirm that the Pfiesteria in the ponds caused the deaths. And 10,000 fish died there this summer, but state officials have not received test results indicating whether Pfiesteria was present.

Mazzaccaro said he got a call about 3 p.m. yesterday from a DNR official advising him not to draw water from the Manokin River for the 10 ponds where he raises hybrid rockfish.

"They just said, 'You might not want to pump the water,' and I said, 'Fine,' " Mazzaccaro said.

He said that he can operate for about a week without water from the river, but that any longer stretch will endanger the fish.

Michael Shultz, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that until solutions are addressed about reducing pollutants that flow into the bay, problems such as the Pfiesteria outbreak will continue.

"There's nothing that unique to the Pocomoke or the Manokin rivers that leads us to believe it couldn't happen anywhere else in the bay," Shultz said.

In a laboratory on the Patuxent River, the toxic microbe has been linked to fish kills in a tank for the third time in the past three years but has not been found in the wild on the Western Shore.

The governor said state officials expect to announce additional actions today. He said the state's congressional delegation had been notified and state employees were working almost around the clock on the problem.

The 24-hour, toll-free number for anglers to report catching fish with lesions is 1-888-584-3110.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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