No verdict in Pfiesteria search Lesions are found on some fish

tests inconclusive

August 07, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

WHITEHAVEN -- State scientists trolled the placid waters in and around Shiles Creek about a mile south of this waterfront village yesterday in an effort to determine whether Pfiesteria piscicida, the toxic microbe that killed fish and sickened watermen last year, has returned to Maryland waters.

From yesterday's sample of 87 fish, Department of Natural Resources officials netted 19 more Atlantic menhaden with telltale bloody sores from Shiles Creek, a small tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Wicomico County. On Tuesday and Wednesday, state monitoring crews worked 16-hour days to catch 151 menhaden, including 31 with lesions.

Health and environmental officials said preliminary results from the North Carolina State University laboratory of Pfiesteria expert JoAnn Burkholder were inconclusive.

"We sent three samples, and two of them appear to be completely clear," said Dave Goshorn, chief of DNR's living resources assessment program. "The third sample appeared to have low levels of what looks like Pfiesteria. They found 130 cells per milliliter. Typically, it takes at least 100 cells to cause lesions, 300 to kill a fish."

The sampling came one year to the day after a fish kill wiped out 20,000 to 30,000 menhaden on the Pocomoke River, prompting state officials to close it for several weeks. However, yesterday, Shiles Creek and the Wicomico River, into which it flows, remained open to boaters, fishermen and swimmers. State officials cautioned repeatedly that they have no firm evidence that the sick fish are a harbinger of another Pfiesteria outbreak.

"We cannot say this is Pfiesteria," said Liz Kalinowski, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources. "We know that menhaden seem to be the most vulnerable. They could well be the telltale sign, but it's too soon to be certain."

Early yesterday, fisheries biologist Harry Rickabaugh and other members of a DNR monitoring crew worked from a 14-foot boat. Wearing rubber surgical gloves, they cast nylon nets about 100 yards north of the 30-foot-wide mouth of Shiles Creek.

In one haul, a half-dozen juvenile menhaden, each about 3 inches long, were brought aboard. Tossed into brackish water in a metal tub, the fish were measured and examined. All had clearly visible lesions.

State officials say that other species caught in the area, including croaker, perch and white catfish, have been healthy, and fish afflicted with Pfiesteria-like lesions have not been found in other state waters.

"The most difficult part for us this week has been catching enough menhaden to get a meaningful sample," said Maj. Michael Howard, a Natural Resources Police spokesman. "The menhaden have not begun schooling in large groups, at least not yet."

Scientists believe that one reason Pfiesteria has not been

detected in Maryland this summer is the lack of abundant schools of the oily, algae-eating menhaden that apparently transform Pfiesteria from a harmless algae to a toxin that kills fish and makes people sick.

After closing the Pocomoke and Chicampacomico rivers and Kings Creek last year, environmental officials began monitoring the known trouble spots three times a week this spring. Added to the monitoring schedule were the Wicomico, Nanticoke and Big Annemessex rivers and two coastal bays, St. Martins and Newport, near Ocean City. All are similar waterways that were thought to be vulnerable.

Without the monitoring program, state officials might have missed the problems in Shiles Creek, a narrow stream that cuts about two miles into the marsh from the Wicomico.

"There isn't much commercial fishing along the river and without being out here, we probably would not have heard about it," said Goshorn.

Environmentalists say they fear the appearance of sick fish marks the beginning of a new outbreak, but they praise the state's monitoring program.

"This year, the state has done a good job monitoring the problem," said Mike Shultz, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Unfortunately, we pretty much expect another outbreak because nothing has really changed since last summer. It was Aug. 6 last year that we had our first big fish kill. Nutrients are still getting into the water."

Tugboats and recreational boaters are plentiful from the mouth of the 17-mile-long Wicomico to Salisbury, but few waterfront farms are applying chicken manure fertilizer, which scientists believe produces nutrients that fuel Pfiesteria.

Residents worried that a recent renaissance in this once-thriving steamship port might be jeopardized by bad environmental news. In Whitehaven, residents have been nurturing hopes that their calm, historic setting will draw visitors.

One new bed and breakfast has proven successful and the old Whitehaven Hotel is being renovated under the direction of the nonprofit Wicomico County Historical Properties.

Patricia Russell, who helped raise money for the hotel project, believes that increased attention to the environment will prompt stronger regulations that will help protect the river.

"What we're really trying to do in Whitehaven is eco-tourism, and I think that a lot of the legislation that's come in the last few years will make a difference," Russell said.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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