Bay's economy, future feel sting of Pfiesteria Seafood sales are off

outlook grows dimmer with each incident

September 21, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Ted Shelsby and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

For a mere one-celled organism, Pfiesteria piscicida has created plenty of damage this summer in its aggressive sweep up three Maryland waterways feeding the Chesapeake Bay.

By shutting down sections of two rivers and a creek with fish kills and human illness, it has frightened the public enough to knock the bottom out of the state's $400 million-a-year seafood industry.

Beyond that, some suggest, it may alter for years the way Marylanders think of the bay, turning the state's greatest natural treasure into a source of anxiety -- a prospect with its own gloomy economic implications.

At the confluence of these eddying worries are Grant "Hon" Lawson and his wife, Yvonne. A retired waterman in the one-time fishing capital of Crisfield, he sympathizes with those who fret that health concerns will unjustly ruin the market for local seafood.

Yet, after watching Pfiesteria from the Pocomoke River temporarily reduce Yvonne to the level of a confused child, he also understands the frightening possibilities of playing down health risks for the sake of the economy.

"Most of the people I've talked to down here are concerned," he says. "Then there's another group that's upset with the reaction, and I can understand that, too. But no one's making light of it, because everybody's affected."

But it is Yvonne, still recovering, who may speak for the entire state when she says, "It's sad. I know the way Ien

joyed the water as a child, and I want my grandchildren to be able to enjoy it the same way. But if you always have to stop and think about it, it will be different. You're dealing in unknowns."

For the moment, the repercussions of the Pfiesteria outbreak are merging like the currents of a rising, turbulent river, flowing in the same direction even as they collide.

Watermen complain that environmentalists are panicking the public with sweeping statements about a limited hazard. Environmentalists grumble that watermen may be hiding a wider problem by failing to report fish kills and diseased catches.

State officials, caught in the middle, are moving fast to accommodate both sides, quickly closing tainted waters even as they allocate an extra $250,000 for a marketing campaign to shore up the eroding image of Maryland seafood.

Meanwhile, the public is buying fewer fish by the day throughout the bay region, and the uncertainty has extended to include seafood caught far beyond the closed waterways or even the bay.

At the Reliant Fish Co., a seafood wholesaler in Jessup, Patrick Welsh Sr., and his son, Patrick Jr., say their sales have fallen by 70 percent since early August, when publicity about Pfiesteria took off with the first closure of the Pocomoke.

Holding up a big, fresh rockfish, the younger Welsh says, "It doesn't matter what it is. They aren't buying it." That includes butter fish shipped from the Gulf of Mexico, or bluefish caught in the Atlantic off the coasts of Maryland and New Jersey.

Roy Castle, chief of aquaculture and seafood marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, says a supermarket manager in Northern Virginia told him recently that sales of Atlantic salmon have dropped from $2,500 a week to less than $700 during the past month.

"Atlantic salmon is caught 1,000 miles from the bay," Castle marvels.

Adds John R. Griffin, Maryland's Secretary of Natural Resources: "We've been getting calls from overseas and queries on the Internet. We had somebody early on from Hawaii who said they were planning a trip to the Chesapeake Bay and wondered if it was still safe to come.

"Think of the psychological implication of that."

That's exactly the sort of thinking Dennis Donovan gets paid for, as a partner with the Wadley-Donovan Group, a New Jersey company that advises companies seeking sites for relocation or expansion.

Having worked with Maryland economic development officials for more than 20 years, Donovan says that a long-term problem with Pfiesteria "would put a big dent in the state's quality of life attraction, and quality of life is Maryland's biggest lure [for industry]

"The bay is the major attraction for most corporate executives and professional workers. A long-term problem on the bay would really be disastrous."

Not even the most pessimistic in-state observers yet believe this sort of future is in store, including conservationists who are calling for extra measures of caution, such as Don Baugh, vice president for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"It's my business not to be hysterical," Baugh says, "and I truly believe the bay is safe to swim in and the fish is safe to eat, except in certain areas."

Yet, he, too, has been shaken by recent events, and when his daughter developed a rash two weeks ago after a bay canoeing trip, he immediately suspected the worst even though she had been eight miles from the closed section of the Pocomoke.

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