A governor's commission wrestled yesterday with how to deal with the chicken manure spread on lower Eastern Shore farms after hearing scientists tie the nutrient-rich runoff from croplands to growth of a fish-killing microbe.
The panel, headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, heard that scientists from three states agree that reducing nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is likely over time to lower the risk of future outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida or other harmful algae.
But the unusual scientific consensus was tempered by a warning from agricultural experts. They said any attempt by the state to force farmers or poultry companies to absorb the costs of reducing manure-related pollution might cripple the lower Shore's largest industry, as well as the state's economy.
"I ask, as you make your deliberations, that you balance the economic and environmental consequences very carefully," said Thomas A. Fretz, dean of the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Fretz warned that a 4 percent dip in poultry production on the Shore could eliminate 1,000 jobs and cost the economy $74 million.
But state Sen. Brian E. Frosh countered that the public's fear of Pfiesteria threatens to destroy the state's tourism industry, which is even more economically important than poultry.
"We're between a rock and a hard place," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who favors tighter controls on farm fertilizer use.
The meeting was held on a day when the second of three bay tributaries shut down in the summer because of Pfiesteria outbreaks was reopened. The Somerset County Health Department declared Kings Creek open as of 6 p.m. yesterday.
The tributary of the Manokin River was closed Sept. 10 after a man fishing from a bridge over the creek discovered sores on menhaden.
No fish kills or significant outbreaks of lesions have occurred in the creek for 14 days, making it eligible for reopening under the state's health criteria, said Liz Kalinowski, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.
The state has examined more than 100,000 fish throughout the bay in the past five months and found less than 1 percent displayed signs of trauma, infection or lesions, DNR said yesterday.
Only the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County remains closed to fishing and swimming. The lower Pocomoke River, closed Aug. 29 after doctors found evidence that people who had contact with the river were experiencing health problems, was reopened Oct. 3.
At the hearing, Donald F. Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, told the state commission that nine researchers he assembled from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina agreed there is evidence that Pfiesteria proliferate in nutrient-enriched waters. Levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus were high in the three lower Shore rivers where there were outbreaks in the summer, he said.
Boesch noted that nutrient levels also have increased over the past 12 years in Virginia's Rappahannock River, where Pfiesteria and menhaden with lesions were also found. Virginia did not close that river.
Although nutrient reduction may reduce Pfiesteria over the long term, Boesch warned that that approach may not halt fish kills or lesions. The proximity of fish, not nutrients, apparently triggers the organism to become toxic, he said.
"We would advise you not to expect instant solutions," Boesch said.
Commission members were startled to learn that the thousands of tons of manure produced by raising chickens along the Pocomoke River are spread as fertilizer over less than half the watershed's 170,000 acres of cropland. Other experts had said previously that there was too much poultry waste to apply safely to all the watershed cropland without nutrients from the manure fouling nearby streams.
A state survey of 129 Pocomoke farmers found that manure is spread on just 42 percent of their acreage, while 58 percent of the croplands got chemical fertilizer.
"This is a stunning revelation to me," said John S. Toll, president of Washington College and a commission member. "I had assumed the majority of farmers used chicken litter [as fertilizer]."
William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the survey suggests runoff from manure-treated fields may be worse than previously thought because the poultry litter is concentrated on a smaller area.
Royden Powell, an assistant agriculture secretary who presented the survey results, acknowledged that the state needs to do more to persuade farmers to limit their use of chicken manure as fertilizer.
Sixty-eight percent of the farms checked along the Pocomoke are following all recommended practices for limiting runoff, Powell said. But nearly one in four needs to take better care of its animal manure, and 8 percent are not doing enough to control soil erosion.