Presence of Pfiesteria kept quiet in N.J.

Storm-churned river made tests to confirm discovery impossible

June 28, 2000|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

When New Jersey environmental officials discovered Pfiesteria in one of their rivers last year, they handled it differently than their Maryland counterparts had.

They didn't tell anyone.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection officials discovered in October that the micro-organism, which has been linked to human health problems in Maryland and North Carolina, was in the waters of the Tuckahoe River within three weeks of a fish kill there. But they couldn't be sure whether the September 14 fish kill was caused by Pfiesteria.

"We could not confirm that it had anything to do with Pfiesteria," said Leslie McGeorge, research director for the state environmental agency. The day after the state took its first samples at the fish kill site near Corbin City, Tropical Storm Floyd blew through and roiled the waters, spoiling the chances for follow-up testing, McGeorge said.

So the New Jersey officials waited nine months, until May 24, to brief local public health and emergency agencies about the possibility of Pfiesteria-related fish kills. A few days later the environmental agency posted information about the Tuckahoe River fish kill on its Web site.

The state isn't planning a Pfiesteria hotline or a program to educate the general public about Pfiesteria, McGeorge said.

"Fish kills can be caused by so many things," she said. "We want to make sure there isn't an unfounded sense that any fish kills that anyone might see are due to this organism. The experts...generally feel that New Jersey does not have the right conditions for large-scale toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria."

Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported on its Web site that Pfiesteria, in its non-toxic stage, has been found at four of 209 sites sampled this year - the Middle River in April, at two sites on the Pocomoke River in May, and on the Transquaking River on June 6.

DNR biologist David Goshorn said Pfiesteria was found at three of the four sites in past years. There were no fish kills at any of the sites, and state officials plan to monitor those locations as the water warms and conditions grow more favorable for Pfiesteria outbreaks, Goshorn said. DNR is posting reports on its Pfiesteria sampling every two weeks on its Web site, www.dnr.state.md.us/pfiesteria.

In 1997, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening became the first state official in the nation to order a waterway - the Pocomoke River - closed to the public because of Pfiesteria-related fish kills and reports that people were getting sick at the fish kill sites. There have been no large fish kills and no river closures in Maryland since then.

JoAnn Burkholder, a North Carolina State University expert whose laboratory conducts the most detailed Pfiesteria tests, said one recent North Carolina fish kill may have been caused by the micro-organism. But the toxic stages of Pfiesteria are linked to warm water, and it is still early for major outbreaks, Burkholder said.

Burkholder found Pfiesteria in a water sample taken from the New Jersey river last October, but the sample did not kill fish in her laboratory. It's a sign that Pfiesteria may lose toxic power at the northern end of its range, she said.

Dr. Park Rublee, a University of North Carolina scientist who developed an on-the-spot test for Pfiesteria, reported in February that he had found the micro-organism as far north as Long Island. But Rublee's test can't distinguish between toxic and non-toxic stages, nor can it tell the difference between low levels and levels high enough to harm fish or people.

Goshorn said scientists are working on a more precise test, but it wouldn't be available this summer.

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