SENATE OF MARYLAND
ANNAPOLIS. MARYLAND 214O1-1991
Pfeisteria: is it hysteria or not? The massive fish kill in the
Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore was caused by something. The kill is
surprisingly like what has occurred repeatedly this decade in North
Carolina. Persons in that state who called it hysteria to be concerned
about pfeisteria have sadly been proven wrong.
It surely isn't hysteria to be concerned about the fish kills in the
Chesapeake. And it surely isn't hysteria to be cautious for the time
being about what you do on or in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and
its tributaries. But, does that Eastern Shore fish kill translate into a
human health hazard? For that question the jury is still out. State
officials are frantically trying to find the answer to that question.
Hopefully it will be quickly forthcoming, and not slowly and
begrudgingly, as it was in North Carolina.
I know that many of you in my district have heard news reports about
pfeisteria and have concluded that it doesn't affect you because it
appears to be happening only on the Eastern Shore. Or it may appear too
complicated and scientific for you to attempt to understand. For several
reasons which I will get to later I feel that everyone here should
become knowledgeable about pfeisteria.
First a little background. Pfeisteria is a single-cell organism. It is
an animal, as opposed to a plant (which some people thought when it was
first discovered). It is part of the family known as dinoflagellates. A
member of its family causes the red tide fish kills which we have
experienced in Southern Maryland waters.
Pfeisteria remains dormant until something triggers it. That something,
scientists believe, is pollution in the form of nutrients. In North
Carolina, waste from hog farms has been identified as one of the
culprits. When pfeisteria is released in becomes what has been described
as "the killer from hell." It attacks fish viscously, leaving them dead
and with gaping holes in their bodies. It also attacks human blood in
In North Carolina it is believed to have caused many health problems
for humans who have come into contact with it. Watermen, divers,
swimmers and others who have come in contact with pfeisteria infested
waters have had lesions on their body and experienced irritableness and
short-term memory loss. People have difficulty remembering at the end of
a sentence what they said at the beginning. Fortunately the problems
seem to at least partially go away when they remove themselves from
Our office has received information several times this summer of fish
being caught in the Potomac and Patuxent with lesions. Unlike the
Pocomoke, there have been, as far as we know, no reports of human health
problems in Southern Maryland. St. Mary's County Health Officer Dr.
Ebenezer Israel confirms no human health related reports. And he says
that the lesions can be caused by factors other than pfeisteria.
The state health department has issued a notice regarding safe swimming
and fishing in the Bay. The notice says: "Swimming or recreating in
Maryland waters does not pose a public health threat." But it goes on to
modify that statement by saying after swimming in any natural surface
water people should bathe or shower. And it cautions: "Do not swim in an
area experiencing a major fish kill (thousands of dead fish)." Dr.
Israel says "major" is defined as at least 20 percent of the fish
population. On the Pocomoke the fish kill percentage is much higher.
The health notice goes on to say that people should use common sense is
eating fish, including not eating fish with deep ulcers into the flesh
and not eating dead or dying fish. Also fish, of course, should be
completely cooked. Regarding handling fish with lesions, it says
recreational fisherman should wash their hands with soap and water and
commercial watermen are encouraged to wear gloves and wash their hands
These are pretty common sense precautions, regardless of whether we
have pfeisteria in Southern Maryland waters or not. But Dr. Israel says
that if we do have it, it will have been triggered by what we do on the
land. So it behooves all of us to be better stewards of the Chesapeake
Bay by questioning what we are doing in our own day-to-day living. One
example: do we really need to put fertilizer with 15 or 25 percent
nitrogen on our lawn? The old axiom holds true: an ounce of prevention
is worth a pound of cure.
The problem got out of hand in North Carolina because state officials
buried their heads in the sand about the problems of pollution and about
the potential problem of pfeisteria. It took years for the message to
catch on in that state. We've known about lesions in the Pocomoke River
since last winter. Only now do we appear to be mobilizing. Not a record
to be proud of but I am still hopeful that we can acquit ourselves by
saying we've acted as quickly as humanly possibly to protect human
Meanwhile if you see any suspicious looking fish or you yourself or
someone you know is experiencing the health problems I've mentioned
above, please call the state toll--free number at 1-888-448-0012.