Mother Nature's way

October 09, 1997|By Chris Parks

AT THE RECENT summit on Pfiesteria, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening likened the dead fish in the Pocomoke River to canaries in a mine. ''When the canary died, the miners knew to get out,'' said the governor.

It was an appropriate analogy, with implications that go beyond the current problems associated with Pfiesteria. In the past several months, everyone in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which covers 64,000 square miles from New York to Norfolk, has been reminded that the bay is in trouble. The problem cannot be reduced to the amount of chicken manure used to fertilize crops.

The first ''canaries'' to die were not the fish in the Pocomoke at the hands of Pfiesteria, but oysters infected by Dermo and MSX. When they first appeared almost three decades ago, most people had never heard of these diseases, but the fact is they began killing oysters in the Gulf of Mexico as early as 1940.

What caused these organisms to show up suddenly in the Chesapeake Bay? No one is sure, but several years ago Robert Anderson, a University of Maryland researcher, concluded that the immune systems of oysters, fish and crabs are becoming increasingly weakened by pollution, making them more susceptible to diseases found naturally in the bay.

Now we have Pfiesteria, an aquatic plague that, like Dermo and MSX, seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Suddenly, fish are dying, people are getting sick, and everyone from the governor to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to watermen has sprung into action. The culprit, we are told, is the chicken manure used as fertilizer by the 600 farmers in the Pocomoke River and Kings Creek area.

One would think that these farms had sprung up overnight to dump their insidious wastes into the tributaries of the Eastern Shore. In reality, the number of farms in Worcester and Somerset counties has probably declined over the past several decades. More and more farmland is needed for commercial development, such as the Wal-Mart SuperCenter that opened in Pocomoke this spring.

Which is not to say that agricultural run-off shouldn't be reduced. We must recognize, however, that the problem is much larger. In July, Maryland and EPA officials admitted that the bay was practically choking in nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage discharges, farm and suburban run-off and air pollution.

Ten years ago, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer met with his counterparts in Virginia and Pennsylvania, along with the mayor of Washington and the EPA administrator.

The participants at that Chesapeake summit pledged to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay by 40 percent by the year 2000, meaning that three years from now only 186 million pounds of these nutrients should be dumped into the bay annually.

Yet current projections estimate that 203 million pounds will enter the bay in 2000. Simply put, we have failed miserably at our efforts to clean up the bay.


Before we begin burning farmers in effigy, we should come to terms with our own culpability for the slow death of the Chesapeake Bay. Every time we flush our toilets, fertilize our lawns, drive our cars, take out our garbage or eat locally grown fruits and vegetables, we drive more nails into the bay's coffin.

Pfiesteria, Dermo and MSX aren't newcomers to the bay; they have probably inhabited the estuary since its inception. What is relatively new to the bay is millions of people using it as a sewer. What is so frightening about Pfiesteria is that this time it is not simply the health and well-being of marine life at risk, but humans as well.

Unless we change our collective behavior, in time there will be another crisis. Politicians, environmentalists, watermen and scientists will run to and fro, and knowledge will be increased, as will appropriations for cleaning up the mess we have made.

All to little avail. We know what the problems are, and we already spend millions of dollars trying to repair the damage. The question is if we have the political will and moral courage to curb development and divert funds to improving waste treatment.

Pfiesteria, Dermo and MSX may be more than Mother Nature's way of telling us that there's a problem. The real message may be that we have become the canaries, and getting out of the mine may not be as easy as we think.

Chris Parks is a free-lance writer and waterman.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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