Pfiesteria outbreak feared 31 menhaden found with lesions on Shore

August 06, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

State biologists are swarming over a tiny tributary of the Wicomico River where fish with Pfiesteria-like lesions have been found over the past two days, officials of the Department of Natural Resources said last night.

Thirty-one of the 151 menhaden sampled Tuesday and yesterday at the mouth of Shiles Creek -- in a remote area about a mile down the Wicomico from the Eastern Shore community of Whitehaven -- had fresh lesions, said Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin.

On the advice of Griffin and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, Gov. Parris N. Glendening decided last night to keep the creek open to boaters, fishermen and swimmers, even though the number of lesioned fish meets one of the state's criteria for ordering a Pfiesteria-related river closure -- at least 50 fish sampled and at least one-fifth of those with fresh lesions.

Because the number of fish involved is small, the area is rarely fished and the presence of Pfiesteria has not been confirmed, Griffin said, Glendening "agreed with our observations at this point that this is a real borderline situation, and prudence suggests that we monitor it heavily."

"We don't have a fish kill, we don't have fish in distress, but we have come up with about 31 menhaden with fresh lesions," said Griffin. "It wasn't earth-shattering, but it piqued our concern."

Officials are worried that the outbreak could widen as menhaden -- the fish that seems to be most affected by Pfiesteria -- continue the summer migration, which has just begun, into the mouths of the Chesapeake Bay's rivers and creeks, officials said.

Glendening, who is in Ocean City for a statewide political conference, told officials "to do whatever is necessary to respond to the outbreak and protect the public," said Ray Feldmann, the governor's press secretary. "We can't overreact, but at the same time we can't underreact either, because this isn't just a Chesapeake Bay water quality issue, it's a public health issue."

The fish, scarred with bloody lesions like the ones caused by Pfiesteria piscicida, were discovered during DNR's routine monitoring of the creek Tuesday, officials said. State biologists took water samples, which were shipped yesterday to the North Carolina laboratory of Pfiesteria expert JoAnn Burkholder for testing.

Results of the tests probably won't be finished until tomorrow, DNR officials said.

DNR's "rapid response team" planned to resume sampling in the creek today, agency biologist Harley Spear said.

DNR police will also be on the scene in case water skiers or swimmers try to use the creek, but "they'll play it by ear," Griffin said, and will probably issue warnings rather than order people off the waterway.

"The DNR has done a very admirable job of making sure public safety is their first priority," said Thomas V. Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Right now, I think they're doing the right thing."

The discovery was made almost exactly a year after tens of thousands of dying fish appeared on the Pocomoke River on Aug. 6, 1997. That fish kill led biologists from suspicion to certainty that Pfiesteria is present in its fish-killing form in Chesapeake Bay waters.

But Griffin stressed that this week's incident on Shiles Creek is far different -- involving a handful of sick fish rather than thousands of dying ones, in a 50-yard-wide creek rather than across the broad mouth of a heavily traveled, heavily fished river. "It's not at all like last year," he said. "There's no comparison in terms of scope, severity or anything else."

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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