3rd river is closed for fish lesions Sick menhaden found in Dorchester County waterway Saturday

September 15, 1997|By D. Quentin Wilber; and Timothy B. Wheeler | D. Quentin Wilber; and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

VIENNA -- State officials closed a 6-mile stretch of a Dorchester County river yesterday after discovering thousands of dying fish with sores 17 miles north of the last documented fish lesion outbreak on the Eastern Shore.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered state health and natural resources officials to ban people from a portion of the Chicamacomico River around Drawbridge Road yesterday afternoon, nearly a day after state officials first found fish in distress there.

The Chicamacomico, which snakes through flat marsh and farmland in eastern Dorchester, is the third water body closed on the Lower Shore in the past month because of a suspected outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida -- a toxic single-celled microorganism blamed for fish lesions and for causing human ailments on another river.

"We have taken this action because our preliminary investigation indicates that a Pfiesteria-like organism could potentially be at work in a toxic form," Glendening said in a statement.

Officials were troubled by the appearance of sickened fish on yet another Maryland river after concluding two weeks ago that the problem seemed to be limited to the Pocomoke River in Somerset County.

"Obviously this increases our level of concern," said John R. Griffin, natural resources secretary, who toured the scene by helicopter and delivered the governor's statement.

"We're resolute to get at the bottom of this."

A 7-mile stretch of the lower Pocomoke River has been closed since Aug. 29, when a team of doctors linked Pfiesteria-like toxic organisms with ailments suffered by watermen and state workers on that Somerset County river.

Last week, officials closed four miles of Kings Creek, a tributary of the Manokin River, after another occurrence of lesions among menhaden was reported.

Officials believe the outbreak on the Chicamacomico began Saturday, when Natural Resources police officers on routine patrol noticed a school of feeding menhaden near the bridge.

The officers, Cpl. John Massey and Officer Jeffery Sweitzer, immediately notified their superiors that the fish had sores.

A team of scientists dispatched to the scene that night caught 75 menhaden, almost all of which appeared to be ill.

The team also took water samples, which are being shipped to a North Carolina laboratory for analysis.

It does not appear that any people became sick from contact with the water, but state officials said they banned fishing, swimming and boating as a precaution.

The closure extends from New Bridge Road to South Brickhouse Landing.

A team of Maryland doctors has linked Pfiesteria piscicida -- or a closely related microorganism -- with short-term memory loss, skin and respiratory irritation in watermen and state workers on the lower Pocomoke.

At the bridge, thousands of menhaden with lesions could be observed swiming in circles just below the water's surface.

Many had whitish spots on their undersides, hallmarks of the lesions that have been linked with Pfiesteria-like attacks.

The school of stricken fish extended several hundred feet north of the road and up to a quarter-mile downstream.

Just a few hundred yards north of the bridge, a few small, white houses nestle against the yellow reeds lining the river's banks.

At one home, George Curletto was getting ready to paint some furniture and make some other repairs.

He said he didn't even know about the fish illness in the river, and he usually casts for fish right in his back yard.

"Now it's right outside my home," said Curletto, 60, a keyboardist.

"This is new to me."

Three men and a boy riding bicycles over the bridge were taken aback to see the fish with lesions and a clutch of scientists and reporters on the river bank.

"Well, now I guess we're in the middle of it," said Dennis Killoran, who was riding with his nephew, father-in-law and brother-in-law.

"I have a feeling it's going to be everywhere soon."

As evening descended, sea gulls began diving for fish near the site.

In the brown water, only the luminescent white of the lesions could be seen near the surface.

The closure should last about two days, officials said, or until the illness dissipates.

Officials had little insight yesterday into why sick fish had appeared in the newly closed watershed.

"It's a black-water type river, similar to the [other] Lower Shore rivers where we've had these problems," said Robert Magnien, the Department of Natural Resources' director of tidal ecosystem assessment.

Magnien said he had been fishing in the Chicamacomico's upper reaches near where it crosses U.S. 50, and "I've never seen anything bad."

As with most rivers in the Lower Eastern Shore, the Chicamacomico watershed is the site of many farms. Scientists believe runoff from the farms, particularly from chicken manure used as fertilizer, has increased nutrient levels and somehow made Pfiesteria attack fish.

Most farmers, however, dispute that contention and say their conservation practices are in line with current standards.

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