Residents of region are found to still fear threat of Pfiesteria

Seafood industry is called vulnerable to recurrence of outbreak scare

September 28, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The recovery of Maryland's seafood industry from the scare caused by an outbreak of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida two years ago is only tentative, and the industry could easily be threated by another occurrence, according to a University of Delaware survey released yesterday.

The survey, conducted in fall 1998, shows that nearly two-thirds of the residents of the mid-Atlantic region believe that seafood is unsafe to eat because of Pfiesteria outbreaks, and that more than half said they would cut their consumption of local seafood if an outbreak occurred in their state's waters. One-fifth of those polled said they have avoided buying or eating seafood during the past five years because of Pfiesteria outbreaks.

"That's a shocking response," said James M. Falk, a researcher with the University of Delaware's Sea Grant College Program, who conducted the survey of residents of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey and New York.

Though nearly all the 789 people who returned the four-page questionnaire had heard of Pfiesteria and knew it is dangerous, their answers were "all across the board," said Falk, who delivered his findings yesterday at a National Sea Grant College news conference in Washington.

His respondents were almost equally split over whether Pfiesteria is a form of pollution, a disease in fish, a parasite in fish or a poison. Only 5 percent knew that it is a predator that attacks fish.

"At least we've gotten to first base in educating people, but there's a lot more work to be done," said Rob Magnien, chief of Tidewater Ecosystems Management for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

Pfiesteria is a single-celled organism that takes 24 forms during its life, only a few of them toxic. It has been found in coastal waters from Georgia to New Jersey and in the bottom mud and water of rivers throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. Scientists believe it feeds on algae and is attracted to menhaden, small bait fish that also feed on algae.

An outbreak of the toxic form of the dinoflagellate near the mouth of the Pocomoke River in 1997 led to huge fish kills and sickened 13 people, who were diagnosed with memory loss, confusion and other mental problems after they were exposed to Pfiesteria.

Scientists discovered menhaden with lesions characteristic of Pfiesteria attacks in the Wicomico and Chicamacomico rivers on the lower Eastern Shore in August and September 1998, and in Middle River in Baltimore County in August and September this year, but they recorded no outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria.

In addition to those who said they were more wary of seafood, nearly half the respondents to Falk's survey said they had changed vacation plans because of Pfiesteria outbreaks.

During the weeks after the 1997 outbreak, Maryland seafood sales declined by as much as 70 percent. State seafood and tourism agencies launched a $500,000 advertising campaign to restore confidence in the safety of the industry. Gov. Parris N. Glendening made it a point to be photographed eating Maryland seafood to try to reassure consumers.

"The advertising we did seems to have helped it bounce back," said Noreen Eberly of the state Seafood Marketing Board. "There are still some people who won't buy seafood no matter what, but for the most part, it's returned to its former levels."

Seafood sales took slight downturns during Pfiesteria scares the past two summers but bounced back immediately, Eberly said.

Now, ads and pamphlets are on the shelf, ready to go with slight updating, said Liz Fitsimmons, director of marketing and communications for the state Office of Tourism.

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