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  •   States Brace for Fish Kills After 'Cell From Hell' Returns in North Carolina

    Menhaden fish lie dead of pfiesteria outbreak in the Neuse River. (Rick Dover/Neuse River Foundation)
    By Joby Warrick
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, August 6, 1998; Page A02

    NEW BERN, N.C.—When the first clumps of sore-pocked fish began popping up in the Neuse River, Rick Dove gassed up his boat and headed straight for the kill zone. He packed cameras and film, a net for the fish and -- for the first time -- a biohazard suit for himself. After five years on the trail of Pfiesteria piscicida, Dove has quit taking chances.

    "I have a lot of respect for the creature that did this," said Dove, slipping on thick black gloves to scoop up a menhaden that appeared to have been chomped in half. "You can't be out here and see this without feeling respect."

    All along the oozing river were more clusters of dead fish, victims of the season's first major attack by the toxic microbe some have dubbed the "cell from hell." An estimated half-million fish had died by late last week and Dove, a former fisherman and now the full-time "riverkeeper" for the Neuse, believes it's just the start.

    From the Middle Atlantic states to coastal Florida, health officials are bracing for what some scientists say could be another rough year. That projection is also backed by Clinton administration officials, who will release a report today warning that conditions favor more outbreaks of pfiesteria-like microbes around the country.

    Weather and water conditions through the spring and summer have again been perfect this year for pfiesteria, which thrives in warm, poorly flushed estuarine waters rich in nutrients from sewage plants, fertilizer and livestock waste. Last week's outbreak in North Carolina comes exactly a year after the first fish kills in Chesapeake Bay tributaries in Maryland. If anything, says aquatic botanist and pfiesteria expert Howard Glasgow, "the killing started earlier than we expected it to."

    But what is different this year is a deepening appreciation of what the microbe may mean for humans. Although a year's worth of new data has barely begun to answer the critical health questions, the evidence so far is reinforcing the view that pfiesteria should be approached with caution.

    "Pfiesteria is cause for concern, but not for alarm," said JoAnn Burkholder, the North Carolina State University botanist who first identified the microbe and now advises state health officials on how to fight it. "We need to treat it as a pathogen and take it seriously enough so we can develop precautionary measures."

    Some of the measures were in evidence as the state grappled with the summer's first outbreak. This year, North Carolina has outfitted its pfiesteria "rapid response" teams with protective suits -- hooded masks and respirators, like the one worn by Dove -- to be used when an outbreak is underway. The state posted permanent warning signs on Neuse River beaches this spring and unveiled a strategy for rapidly closing waterways where large numbers of fish are diseased or dying.

    Those rapid response teams will get a boost today when White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles announces a $365,000 grant to North Carolina to help deal with the outbreak. Bowles, a North Carolinian, also will outline steps to speed up the release of $221 million in U.S. Agriculture Department funds to help the state's farmers pay for field buffers and other measures to keep pollutants out of waterways.

    The White House, Bowles said yesterday, is "committed to working with the state . . . so episodes like this latest fish kill on the Neuse River become a thing of the past."

    In Maryland and Virginia, officials have launched an aggressive pfiesteria watch that monitors key waterways for signs of trouble -- signs that have been notably absent in the Chesapeake Bay region to date. Maryland, with funding from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is preparing a full-scale epidemiological study to examine fishermen and others who appear to have suffered memory loss and other neurological problems after direct exposure to pfiesteria -- symptoms the CDC now officially refers to as "Estuary Associated Syndrome."

    At the same time, the states are hoping that a frank, realistic approach will prevent the kinds of panic attacks that led to steep drops in tourism and seafood sales last year on the Eastern Shore.

    "It doesn't do much for tourism when people come here and see dead fish," said Don Reuter, spokesman for North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "But one thing we learned is that people feel a whole lot better when they're kept informed."

    Pfiesteria is a one-celled member of the algae family most noted for its ability to morph into 24 different forms, at least three of them toxic. Unknown a decade ago, it was first identified in 1988 and linked to a series of recurring fish kills that have destroyed a billion fish in North Carolina, mostly in a relatively small section of the Neuse River between the town of New Bern and the Pamlico Sound. In its toxic form, pfiesteria secretes chemicals that disorient fish and cause their flesh to dissolve, creating bleeding lesions.

    The same chemicals also appear to cause sores and neurological symptoms in people who are directly exposed to toxic pfiesteria when it is attacking fish. Maryland health officials, after examining more than two dozen people who worked or played in the Pocomoke River during last year's outbreak, found a "striking" correlation between intensity of exposure and a loss of short-term memory and learning ability. The effects appear to diminish over time.

    "The evidence really convinced medical researchers that there was something to this," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science and chairman of the state's technical advisory committee on pfiesteria. "That got us beyond some of the debates we were having."

    There appears to be no debate about the cause of last week's fish kill on the Neuse. For about a week, scientists and state emergency crews have been crisscrossing the kill zone documenting the attack's depressingly familiar stages. Burkholder's laboratory on Friday reported finding extraordinarily high concentrations of toxic pfiesteria cells -- levels that are five times higher than the amount needed to kill fish.

    The killing subsided over the weekend after storms and cooler weather put a chill on pfiesteria's activities. But experts believe the lull is temporary. "Pfiesteria took the weekend off," Burkholder said yesterday, "but we're expecting things to take off again once the winds calm."

    A severe outbreak in Middle Atlantic states had been considered likely this year because of weather patterns that created near-perfect conditions for pfiesteria to thrive. After El Niño's heavy rains in the spring loaded the state's coastal estuaries with nutrients, the summer months brought hot, dry weather that turned waterways into ideal incubators for the microbe in its nonlethal forms.

    The only missing ingredient so far is the vast schools of Atlantic menhaden, a small oily fish that migrates by the billions into inland estuaries each summer. The biggest fish kills of the past all occurred in the presence of large schools of menhaden. Some researchers believe secretions by menhaden trigger pfiesteria's transformation into a toxic form.

    Menhaden generally begin arriving in mid- to late summer, followed by schools of croakers and other autumn fish that feed on them. But fisheries scientists say populations of menhaden appear to be down this year, for reasons that aren't yet clear.

    "If the bigger schools were here now," said Glasgow, the aquatic botanist, "we'd be bulldozing fish off the beaches."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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