Fish, Farms, Pfiesteria: Can We Solve Problems?

by Chris Robson, Emily Leffler and Trena Johnson

ALTHOUGH the exhibition hall at the Columbus Center has been closed for several months, there's still plenty of activity in the modernistic building at the Inner Harbor.

Over 150 scientists and researchers are working at the Center for Marine Biotechnology, a division of the University of Maryland located in the Columbus Center. They're focusing on biological projects that are mostly specific to the conditions in Maryland's waterways, according to Dr. Yonathan Zohar, director of the biotechnology center.

The center recently spent $350,000 in emergency funding from the National Institute of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make its laboratories safe for researchers to make cultures of Pfiesteria piscicida-like dynoflagellates at toxic stages. If the toxin can be isolated at the molecular DNA level, it will be turned over to the area's two medical schools to be used to develop antitoxin medications that will combat the ill effects of the organism when it becomes toxic.

"We're not even sure the Maryland strain is pfiesteria," said Dr. Zohar.

Several environmental conditions may cause the organism has to turn toxic. "It's difficult to point a finger at any one factor. It's a combination of factors," said Dr. Zohar. Water temperature, amount of nutrients in the water, and quantity of precipitation are among the variables to be considered. Even fish themselves may be a trigger for toxicity.

"Pfiesteria has probably been around for many years," Dr. Zohar said. "There's been a long history of fish with lesions. It could be it goes back to the Old Testament, where there are references to `red tides'. This one is different because it is affecting humans."

Adverse human health effects are thought to include rashes, breathing problems, and short-term and transient memory loss. According to The Washington Post (1/18/98), however, there is debate over whether pfiesteria can harm humans outside the laboratory. While no one denies that people exposed to pfiesteria-laden waters have suffered health problems, it is difficult to prove that pfiesteria itself is the cause, as its toxins are thus far undetectable.

David Oldach, a professor of medicine and member of the Maryland pfiesteria research team, said that while no direct link between pfiesteria and these health problems has yet been discovered, "there clearly was an effect, which logically appears to be due to the toxins."

Dr. Zohar is more definite. "It is certainly affecting humans," he stated. "There are very serious human health-related effects."

Noreen Eberly, seafood marketing specialist of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDOA), stressed that the risk appears to be limited to those who have had direct exposure. "Watermen have gotten sick from handling and inhaling fish, but no one has gotten sick from eating fish," she said.

With the State's seafood and agriculture industries at stake, not to mention recreation on the State's waterways, officials are scrambling to find answers. While all waterways are currently open, with the coming of warm weather this situation could change rapidly.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has instituted teams to monitor 20 waterways in Maryland. They use a variety of sampling techniques including measuring temperature, salinity, pH levels, pollutants and nutrient levels.

Royden Powell, assistant secretary of the MDOA, who is especially concerned with the well-being and reputation of the state's farming industry, stressed, "Agriculture is not involved by itself. Land use activities are involved."

He continued, "The natural processes are from the nitrogen and phosphorous in leaves and organic matter and marshes. These are uncontrollable and ongoing. And there are man-made processes: human activity, farming and waste water treatment which are controllable."

The main thing to be done to restore water qualify, he said, is to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that is moving off the land. Treating sewage, he said, will help eliminate the problem.

Scientists agree that reducing nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake would decrease the likelihood of another outbreak of toxic pfiesteria. Run-off from chicken waste, used as fertilizer by 42% of farmers, is one cause of this pollution. Treating chicken feed to reduce the amount of phosphorous excreted by chickens could lower levels of nutrient pollution in the water.

The Center for Marine Biotechnology's Dr. Zohar concurs that such prevention methods are necessary. As a scientist, however, he also wants to get at the root causes of the pfiesteria problem. "We need early diagnostics," he said. "We need to develop tools to give State authorities advance warning" of a toxic outbreak."

He continued, "This past summer was a wake-up call that mobilized scientists and faculty. Our approach of studying the DNA/molecular structure of the organism is unique. We're focusing on Maryland water, and Maryland strains."

The question still remains of who will foot the bill for the pfiesteria remedy. President Clinton's recently proposed 1999 budget calls for an allotment of $568 million for a new Clean Water Initiative that would also address the pfiesteria issue-a 35% increase over similar programs in last year's budget. The initiative includes clean water programs and state assistance plans as well as projects to reduce nutrient-rich run-off that are directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) .

Clinton's new budget also allots $20.5 million for the Chesapeake Bay Program, a slight rise over the previous budget. Further, the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration (NOAA) is doubling the amount for its pfiesteria research to $9 million in their next budget.

However, there has not been quite as enthusiastic a response on the State level. The final version of Maryland Governor Parris Glendening's bill omitted the provision that would have placed a legal burden on the poultry industry, including such giants as Perdue and Tyson. Glendening has reportedly not ruled out this approach but is allowing time for the large poultry companies to provide suggestions for a solution.

Legislators in rural areas fear that placing such a legal and financial burden on chicken producers would make Maryland appear business-unfriendly in the eyes of the industry.

Environmentalists are supporting an alternative proposal by Montgomery County Democrat Senator Christopher Van Hollen, Jr. It stipulates that the responsibility for manure disposal and pollution clean-up should not fall on small local contract farmers.

Inevitably, of course, financial responsibility for the environment will be passed along to the poultry consumer and to the taxpayer.

For more information on Pfiesteria piscicida, see the University System of Maryland's web site at fish-health/pfiesteria.

NEXT MONTH: The advent of Aquaculture, and the issue of "vertical integration" in agribusiness and its impact on small farming.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on March 4, 1998.