Fish lesions spark concern in central Florida Organism suspected of causing sickness among five species

March 20, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

STUART, Fla. -- The trouble started one sunny March morning at Wade Aycock's dock. Bending over the mirror-bright waters of the still, slender creek behind his house, Aycock looked down at a school of silver mullet and was horror-struck by what he saw:

"Thousands and thousands of fish, all with lesions on them. Deep wounds at the top of the head, above the tail, in the middle of the back -- sometimes clear through to the spinal column. I stood there and watched them die.

"I knew something was bad wrong," said Aycock in the slow-moving accent of his native Virginia Tidewater. "I had to let somebody know about this."

Now everyone in this tourist town knows what the retired funeral director reported March 3: There's a toxic microorganism in local waters, and it's suspected of harming the fish along with the community's way of life.

Fishermen have caught hundreds of fish with gaping wounds -- bait fish at first, then popular varieties of sport fish and dinner-table species, some with their bodies so eaten away that the flesh falls apart at a touch.

In a chain of events sickeningly familiar to Chesapeake Bay-area dwellers, the state has started a hot line and plastered bait shops with "wanted" posters seeking samples of sick fish. Scientists have found a close kin to Pfiesteria piscicida in the St. Lucie River.

And though there's no evidence that whatever is killing the fish can harm people, residents say they're afraid to fish off their bridges, afraid to swim off their docks, afraid to eat the fish filets stacked in their freezers.

Residents angered

Local folks are pointing fingers: at cryptoperidiniopsis, the newly named toxic cell; at the polluted floodwaters flowing into the St. Lucie River at the rate of 5 billion gallons a day; and at state and federal officials who are blamed for letting things come to such a pass.

"We demand an honest explanation in plain language," reads a widely circulated petition drafted by Henry Caimotto, owner of the Snook Nook tackle shop in nearby Jensen Beach. "Platitudes, generalities and tap dancing are not acceptable."

Scientists for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say it will be weeks before they know why fish are dying in the St. Lucie and the adjacent Indian River Lagoon.

"It's a big mystery," said biologist Paul Forstchen, a DEP fish kill investigator who calls this case the worst he's ever seen. "It's going to be a long, exhaustive search for an answer."

Pfiesteria parallels

Researchers are finding strong parallels to the toxic Pfiesteria attacks that have troubled Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore since at least 1996 -- and to other harmful algae blooms that appear in waters worldwide about twice as often as they did 20 years ago.

In central Florida, people say the sick fish are only the latest symptom of an estuary that has suffered decades of environmental insults.

"Nothing gets done about things like this until it's too late," said Gilbert Haversperger, a Snook Nook employee. "And then everybody says, 'Gee, what a shame.' "

A massive flood control project, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s and 1960s, has drastically altered natural water flows in the brackish St. Lucie and its neighboring arm of the sea, the Indian River Lagoon.

Pollution may be a factor

A series of canals now drains a 700-square-mile swath of farmland and subdivisions into the seven-mile river. When heavy rains fall, the river becomes a relief valve for chronically polluted Lake Okeechobee. Runoff flows into the lake and then into the river from the middle one-third of Florida, with its cities, citrus groves, sugar cane fields and cattle ranches.

This winter, record-setting rains have filled the lake past flood stage. Cracks have appeared in its dike. Fearing a flood, state and federal water managers opened canal locks in January, pouring so much water into the St. Lucie that a plume of opaque brown water flows miles out to sea.

Soon lesion-covered mullet began showing up in the estuary's mangrove-lined creeks. Like the menhaden that succumbed to Pfiesteria in Maryland, mullet are algae eaters. Swimming in large schools, they seek calm waters where the one-celled plants are abundant.

Eventually, fishermen found lesions on the fish that eat the mullet: sheepshead, jack crevalle and snook, all anglers' favorites; and pompano, a saltwater species prized for its rich, sweet taste.

Two water samples from the St. Lucie contained cryptoperidiniopsis (krip-to-PEAR-a-din-ee-OP-sis). The tiny dinoflagellate is so similar to Pfiesteria that only a painstaking examination under an electron microscope can distinguish the two, said Karen Steidinger of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

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