Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 15

April 11 - 17, 2002

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Mycobacteriosis ~ That’s a Big Word for Trouble

Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily.
— Shakespeare, King Henry IV: 1596-97

Also in King Henry IV, another line is applicable to this week’s topic. So shaken we are, so wan with care.
The thought of Doomsday is enough to shake anyone, whether it be finis for humankind itself or something we hold dear. Something, say, like the Chesapeake Bay; more specifically the coveted rockfish of that estuary.
But, thankfully, “Doomsday” is only a word, though a mighty ominous word that comes to mind when some catastrophic occurrence threatens.

And there are Prophets of Doom, whose tongues wait like coiled cobras to spit out that frightening word. Doomsday.

Doomsdays Past
Remember Pfiesteria? Its discovery in lower Eastern Shore waters five years ago was a hey-day for the Prophets of Doom. Fish, primarily menhaden, were dying by the hundreds, even thousands.

And some watermen who were handling them complained of sores, dizziness and other physical maladies. Without delay, many Bay observers were ready to jump on Chicken Little’s bandwagon: The sky was falling. Doomsday was at hand.

Go back a couple more decades. There was Kepone, the deadly and horrific pollutant that found its way into the James River, a tributary of the Chesapeake, from a factory that made insect poisons. Some workers became ill; fish — especially bluefish — became prime carriers.

Fishermen panicked, some quit fishing, and, as when Pfiesteria struck, seafood markets suffered as consumers became wary of anything that swam in the Bay. There were Prophets of Doom who predicted the end of the bounty of the Bay.

Back a bit further there was Tropical Storm Agnes that roiled the Chesapeake into one big mud pie, a stew of chemicals, toxins, metals, silt, debris and anything else that could be washed up from the bottom or carried by runoff from shore into the Bay. For weeks, water clarity was such that one could not see more than a foot beneath the surface.

Marine life virtually suffocated. There were no clear, clean waters to be found. Silt clogged gills of marine life in an already not-so-healthy Chesapeake, and the Prophets of Doom were quick to predict the sky was falling.
The Bay could never recover.

There have been other calamities: oyster diseases, soft-shell clam woes, massive fish kills — all legitimate cause for concern if not downright worry. But Doomsday has not struck. We have been shaken, have been wan with care, but the resilient Chesapeake and many of its equally resilient inhabitants have bounded back.

Doom by Mycobacteriosis
In modern times, fishing has never been better than it is now for some species, especially our favored rockfish or the beloved sea trout. Yet worrisome things still occur in our Chesapeake, things that activate the wagging tongues of the Prophets of Doom.

Mycobacteriosis. It’s not easy to pronounce, far more difficult to spell. When combined, its 15 letters sound ominous.

Mycobacteriosis. Keep that word in mind. Get accustomed to it. You’re going to hear much more about it as we approach the April 20 opener of the Maryland rockfish season.

The early birds, the Chicken Littles, are already talking about it. And in a way, that’s good. We need Prophets of Doom to prompt concern about what we’re doing to our Chesapeake Bay.

Mycobacteriosis. I first came across it (though I didn’t know it then) in 1997 when a single rockfish I caught off Hacketts had ugly red lesions on its body. Like other fishermen at the time who caught a fish or two with the same symptoms, I wasn’t concerned, except for that individual sickly, skinny, marred and obviously stressed fish. Its existence couldn’t have been too comfortable.

Soon thereafter, we started catching more of them, and the splotches couldn’t be attributed to infections from being ensnared in nets as had been supposed. The ugly red markings were in the wrong places to originate in nets. Moreover, we saw them too frequently for that many fish to have escaped or been discarded from nets. We also started seeing more fish that appeared undernourished, downright skinny stripers.

Now, that new word Mycobacteriosis comes into play. On the Internet last week, the Bay Journal Online, originating from the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, introduced us to Mycobacteriosis. The article of eight pages and written by Karl Blankenship had a headline one couldn’t ignore: “Striped bass illness baffles Bay scientists — Questions include source of infection, risk to fish, humans.”

Those ugly red sores appeared via Mycobacteriosis, Blankenship told us. And within the bodies of those fish and probably others were more abnormalities. Researchers had never before reported the disease in wild fish on the East Coast; it’s associated with fish farming. In addition, there were indications of new varieties of the disease.

We’re also told the disease appears to have reached epidemic proportions, and that scientists strongly suspect large numbers will gradually die. Humans with open sores might also be at risk if they handle these fish, picking up an infection that can take years to shake. Yet present Mycobacteriosis doesn’t get much attention when compared to the Pfiesteria scare, though some consider it a more potent threat.

A long list of respected fisheries scientists, primarily from Maryland and Virginia, are quoted, and there are strong implications the Bay has become an unhealthy place for rockfish. Poor water quality and lack of food induce stress that makes them susceptible to infections.

Worse, more infections were noted inside fish than visible outside. In some areas, up to half the fish examined were infected. Mycobacteriosis appears contagious, and possibly other species could be involved.

The older the fish, the more susceptible. If they die, they won’t be conspicuous. They will succumb individually in scattered places around the Bay, their bodies picked up by birds or crabs and other scavengers.

Take That as a Warning
That’s the bad news. The not-so-bad news is that while admitting there is cause for concern, other fisheries scientists question the extent of the mortality. The disease has been around for at least the five years it has been evident, yet there has been no evidence of large-scale mortality either in dead fish or in reduced numbers.
“We’re not seeing that,” Maryland fisheries chief Eric Schwaab told me. “Of course, we’re obviously concerned, but we don’t see evidence of the large-scale morality attributed to [the disease].”

Monitoring and studying continue, he assured me. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is taking this seriously, but at this point Doomsday does not appear at hand.

Methinks this is surely serious and certainly warrants intensive tracking — while we acknowledge that the increasing presence of the disease is yet another indication of the consequences of how disgracefully we treat our Chesapeake Bay. But it is too early to panic, to quit fishing or to push away a plate of rock filets stuffed with crab.

What we do have is more potent ammunition for our demands that the mighty Chesapeake be cleaned up and pronto, that issues be faced and sacrifices made. We must not simply trust to the resiliency of our Bay to cure by itself of all the ills we dump upon it.

You can read the entire report at www.bayjournal.com or go directly to www.bayjournal.com/02-04/rockfish.htm.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly