Officials reopen closed river Action coincides with probe of two more Pfiesteria-like cases

October 04, 1997|By Dan Fesperman and Marcia Myers | Dan Fesperman and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

After two weeks without spotting a sign of the toxic microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida, state and local health officials reopened the Pocomoke River yesterday, although two other closed waterways continue to yield evidence of trouble.

Using an absence of dead or disfigured fish as a barometer, state officials declared the Pocomoke safe for the first time since Aug. 29. That's when a 7-mile section of the river was closed after fish kills and a striking pattern of symptoms among 11 people who'd been exposed to the water.

Virginia health officials followed suit later in the day, reopening that state's small share of the river. The state borders the east side of the river for a few miles just before it empties into Pocomoke Sound.

Maryland's reopening of the river, announced yesterday in Baltimore by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, marked the first use of new criteria developed by a state medical team for decisions on when to close and open waterways affected by the one-celled Pfiesteria.

Along the lower Pocomoke in Shelltown, closure signs came down within an hour of the governor's announcement. At 12: 45 p.m., a blue pickup truck dispatched by the Somerset County Health Department pulled alongside the dock at Fred Maddox & Son Seafood, and a county worker leaned out the window to yank a warning notice from a waterside post.

In the grass a few yards away, waterman Ray Maddox barely took notice as he pried open barrels of tar to coat his fishing nets, which he said would be back in the waters of the Pocomoke this morning.

"It tickles me to death we're going to go back to work the way we're used to going back to work," said Maddox, who was among the first to raise concerns about health problems on the river last fall.

Like many other watermen, his business has been sorely strained by skittish consumers who have stopped buying bay seafood because of Pfiesteria worries.

"I don't think we're going to see any immediate improvement," Maddox said.

"I just hope the public puts enough trust in watermen to know that we don't put out any bad fish and we never will."

Fear remains

Among those still not convinced of the river's safety is James Aravanis, 23, who grew up down Shelltown Road from the Maddoxes' house, swimming and fishing in the Pocomoke. He developed lesions and other Pfiesteria-like symptoms this summer after water-skiing on the river.

Although he said he has completely recovered, he still wonders about the water's health.

"I wouldn't eat anything from it, I wouldn't swim in it and I wouldn't advise anybody else to, either," Aravanis said.

"It will probably be a couple of years before I'll feel OK with it."

It will also be at least a few weeks before anyone is allowed to fish, boat or swim in King's Creek or the Chicamacomico River, two nearby waterways closed by the state last month after fish kills attributed to Pfiesteria.

The state's new criteria require a continuous clean bill of health during two weeks of testing and fish monitoring before a closed river can be reopened, and Glendening said yesterday that King's Creek and the Chicamacomico fall far short.

"Unfortunately they have had minor but still Pfiesteria-type [fish] lesions on those two rivers as recently as the last few days," Glendening said, "which means that we're likely to have another whole two weeks" of closure.

A political point

The opening of the Pocomoke is a fortunate political turn of events for the governor. Just last Monday, his leading challenger for re-election, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, decried the continued closure after touring the Shelltown area.

Maryland Health Secretary Martin Wasserman said yesterday that the river remained closed longer than it might have to give scientists time to determine the proper conditions for reopening.

"This is serious business," Wasserman said, "and it takes a while to get all the appropriate people together."

With their 14-day requirement, the criteria err on the side of caution.

A state "protocol" on closing and reopening rivers released yesterday says: "Current scientific knowledge indicates that toxins emitted by Pfiesteria and Pfiesteria-like organisms break down in less than 48 hours."

Wasserman said that a week of Pfiesteria-free test results would likely be sufficient but that the state decided to double its margin for error.

One reason for added caution is that, for now, scientists must depend on dead and dying fish or ones swimming erratically to notify them of Pfiesteria's presence, because there is not yet a quick and reliable way of simply testing the water.

That's one of the many mysterious aspects of Pfiesteria, and the new criteria note, "This protocol is based on evolving scientific knowledge and experience and is subject to continuous evaluation."

More possible cases

Wasserman would not comment on reports yesterday that the medical team is examining two patients with suspected cases of Pfiesteria poisoning from waterways that have not yet been closed by the state -- Wicomico Creek and the Nanticoke River.

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