Cheasapeake Outdoors ~ by C.D. Dollar

 Vol. 10, No. 10

March 7 - March 13, 2002

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Polluted Waters a Crying Shame

I was all fired up to write sweetly about the rites of spring: yellow perch and shad runs, outfitting my boat with a casting platform and excitement over the proposed longer rockfish seasons. But sadly, I can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm after a barrage of press releases citing problems with our water.

It’s well known among Bay watchers that our Chesapeake holds a place of dishonor on the EPA’s impaired waters list. Many, if not most, of the upper watershed’s freshwater tributaries are also saddled with health advisories of one kind or another.

I suppose the final straw that bumped me off my fishing train was the comment of a friend, a Chester River native, who said she was seriously considering cutting her crabs and fish consumption. In light of the warnings, it might make sense, but it was a depressing statement nonetheless.

Recently, we’ve been delivered a spate of sobering news about our waters and the fish that swim therein. In December, Maryland’s Department of the Environment issued fish consumption advisories for 13 species in 14 tidal tributaries as well as lakes and reservoirs throughout the state. The state’s top health agency found unhealthy levels of PCBs, mercury and pesticides.

If that wasn’t bad enough going into the New Year, both Maryland and Virginia closed the Potomac River and several tributaries last month to oystering after routine tests revealed high levels of the marine algae Dinophysis acuminata. Initial testing did not reveal that the algae were producing the toxic compound okadaic acid that can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. But another battery of tests last week found the presence of the toxin, which is not fatal but makes people sick for days. Merely the thought of it makes me ill.

Perhaps the kicker to all this bad news came last week out of the annual meeting of top pfiesteria experts. Robert Magnien, the Department of Natural Resources scientist who supervises the state’s study of the harmful dinoflagellete, said scientists have consistently found it in a dormant stage in Middle River since 1999.

It’s been almost five years since pfiesteria rose to infamy on several Eastern Shore rivers, killing fish and making people sick. Unless there is relief from the prolonged drought we’re experiencing, experts say we could see other pfiesteria outbreaks this summer. The vexing problem is that state officials have no reliable way to determine when a waterway is unsafe and declared off limits until after an event such as a fish kill or the presence of large schools of distressed fish, which could be the result of something other than pfiesteria. A test is in the works, and officials believe it could be ready in time for summer.

Lack of rain to flush algae blooms — no doubt part of the complex combination of triggers that unleashes toxic stages of pfiesteria and other microbes from waterways — is a factor. But the bottom line remains that the Bay’s natural filtering system is so out of whack that we are left treating the symptoms and not the disease.

Fluctuations in our climate are part of the natural process, but being scared to eat fresh seafood or to swim in our rivers shouldn’t be.

~by C.D. Dollar

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly