Watermen favor Virginia approach State keeps river open despite evidence of Pfiesteria

September 20, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

TAPPAHANNOCK, VA. -- At the end of every day, Virginia crabber Dave Forbes does something that would scare the socks off of people living on Maryland's lower Pocomoke River.

He grabs a scrub brush, dunks both arms into the Rappahannock River and cleans any nicks or cuts he has picked up during the day. Despite recent tests nearby suggesting the water may contain toxic microorganisms, the 40-year-old waterman says he's safe.

"If there's something in this river, I'd be ate up," Forbes said yesterday, holding out his two clean forearms.

Like the majority of watermen interviewed yesterday in this quiet strip of land known as Northern Neck -- about 100 miles due south of Baltimore -- Forbes supports his state's decision to keep open the Rappahannock. Some tests this week showed as many as 76 percent of captured menhaden fish had lesions characteristic of those caused by Pfiesteria piscicida, the toxic microbe.

By contrast, Maryland's most aggressive strategy has closed three waterways after fish were found with lesions or died after suspected Pfiesteria attacks.

Virginia officials say they need more time to study the possible the cause of the lesions.

In Maryland, the microbe has been blamed for large fish kills on the Pocomoke and for sickening nearly 30 people. Maryland also closed two other waterways as a public health precaution.

The Rappahannock has not seen the large fish kills reported in Maryland. Still, not everyone in the fishing industry here is as sure about personal safety as Forbes is.

About 25 miles east of Tappahannock, Stanley O'Bier, a supervisor at Pride of Virginia Seafood Products in Reedville, has conflicting concerns. He knows that shutting down the river would hurt his business. But he worries about safety.

O'Bier said he and his workers handle up to 80,000 pounds of fish a week. Commercial fishermen bring menhaden in from a number of locations -- including the Chesapeake Bay and rivers such as the Rappahannock that feed it. O'Bier sells the fish for $8 a box to commercial crabbers.

Already, he said, Pfiesteria fears have driven rockfish from $2.25 a pound to 75 cents a pound.

But O'Bier also wants state officials to conclude -- soon -- if he is at risk. "You don't know what you're dealing with," he said. "What if you've got an open cut on your hands "

Reedville calls itself the menhaden capital of the world. It has two large menhaden processing plants. The fish protein is used for chicken feed, dog food and cosmetics.

That species is especially susceptible to Pfiesteria attacks.

O'Bier estimates that more than 50 percent of local residents are tied to the fishing business. And they're concerned about their livelihoods.

But for some watermen, marina owners and others along the Rappahannock, their wallets are uppermost on their minds.

Chris Dann, a 26-year-old boat mechanic in Tappahannock, said he wades into the Rappahannock River every day with few worries. "The main thing I hate to see is for it to be made out bigger than it is," Dann said. "The watermen around here don't do so good anyway."

He said as long as the sores were just found on menhaden, which humans do not eat, the river should stay open. A closed river would mean fishermen wouldn't pay to fix their boats nor could they necessarily get their boats to his shop. "That would do me under," Dann said.

Marina and campground owner Johnny Whelan said he's somewhat surprised that his patrons seem complacent. "Strangely enough, they're eating the fish. Personally, I wouldn't eat them," said Whelan, referring to catches in the same general areas where the menhaden were caught.

About 30 miles down river near Greys Point, William "Bubba" Glenn said that he and those on his recreational fishing boat have had no problems this summer. "We haven't seen any bad fish down here," he said.

Those who work on the Rappahannock are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They seem willing to live with a limited number of sick fish.

But, as marina owner Whelan said: "The minute they see dead fish floating up on the banks, they need to close the river."

Forbes, the waterman who scrubs his arms in the river, catches 10 bushels of crabs a day and also catches catfish and croakers. He said he struggles to make $15,000 a year. If the river were closed, he'd have to scramble for a carpentry or painting job.

"I'm a poor man," he said. "Poor as dirt." Turning a phrase that is now heard in the area, Forbes added: "They call it Pfiesteria; I call it hysteria."

But like others who live and work on the river, he attached a hopeful disclaimer to his proud talk: "I haven't seen a problem. I hope there isn't one."

Pub Date: 9/20/97

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