Marion East, a retired waterman, recalls the “tingling sensation” he felt when he pulled fish out of the Pocomoke River 20 years ago this summer.
“When you put your hands in the water, it was about like you were getting a shock,” the Crisfield man said.
That was how East, now 73, encountered the toxic microscopic creature that dominated the news in Maryland during the summer and fall of 1997. East and other watermen describe vast stretches of water littered with dead fish with strange-looking sores in the Pocomoke and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
Scientists called it Pfiesteria piscicida — the second word being Latin for “fish killer.” Headline writers called it the “cell from hell.” The outbreak killed uncountable numbers of fish and cost the state seafood industry tens of millions of dollars. For East and others who were exposed, toxins in the water caused skin lesions, memory loss and other symptoms that still linger.
The event spurred a sustained, bipartisan effort at the state, regional and federal levels to clean up the bay — an effort that scientists say has improved the health of the waterway, and reduced the risk of a recurrence.
But as the outbreak fades from memory for all but those who were most closely involved, scientists and bay advocates say the lessons learned must not be forgotten. Some warn that proposed cuts in federal funding for the cleanup could increase the risk of future outbreaks of Pfiesteria or other toxic microbes.
“We’ve got to continue to emphasize that harmful algae also continue to increase around the world,” said Pat Glibert, an aquatic biologist at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge for 30 years. “Zeroing out these budgets, we’re going to make it very difficult for environmental managers to manage these situations.”
President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the $73 million federal bay cleanup program. The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted last week to cut $13 million from the program, not eliminate it.
Neither the White House, its Office of Management and Budget nor the Environmental Protection Agency responded to requests for comment.
In Maryland, the story of Pfiesteria began on the Pocomoke near the tiny hamlet of Shelltown in Somerset County. The town, which looks across the river toward Virginia, is about as south as you can go and still be in Maryland.
The first hint of trouble came in late 1996, when watermen began finding dead fish with strange lesions. Reports subsided over the winter, but returned in the spring of 1997, accompanied by word of human symptoms. Pfiesteria was identified in a water sample in May.
John Griffin, then Maryland’s Natural Resources secretary, said he traveled to Somerset County to see for himself.
“I could see the roiling in the water,” he said. At least one of his aides became ill, and suffered memory loss soon after.
“Now I understood what the watermen were complaining about.”
A fish kill was discovered in early August, and officials closed the lower Pocomoke for four days. Then came another fish kill, and more evidence of a connection between Pfiesteria and human health problems.
Finally, on the Friday before Labor Day — a crucial weekend for state tourism — then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered the Pocomoke River closed indefinitely.
Scientists concluded that nutrients in the waters of the bay and its tributaries — particularly the runoff of chicken manure that Eastern Shore farmers applied to their fields — contributed to the conditions that allowed Pfiesteria to bloom and turn toxic.
Those findings prompted the General Assembly to pass sweeping legislation to curb the deposit of nutrients into the bay. Environmentalists say the outbreak changed the way Marylanders think about the bay in a lasting way.
“It brought the whole nutrient issue up to a high level in the public discourse,” said Donald F. Boesch, then — as now — president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge. “It was a significant part of the evolution of the public awareness and support and the political will.”
At the time of the outbreak, there was a fear that this would be the new normal — that each summer would bring toxic algae blooms that could harm people and close waterways. But Pfiesteria — at least in a form that harmed people — disappeared from Maryland waters as mysteriously as it arrived. The tiny dinoflagellate is still out there, as it has been for hundreds of millions of years, but there has been no repeat of the toxic outbreak that struck 20 years ago.
Rob Magnien, a scientist who was the Department of Natural Resources’ point man on the outbreak, said that year’s drought conditions may have been a factor. But Magnien, now an ocean research director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said no one theory fully explains what happened.
“What we saw in 1997 will forever remain somewhat of a mystery,” he said.
Glibert, the Horn Point biologist, said Pfiesteria is known as the “the Venus flytrap of the microbial world.” She said it has chlorophyll for photosynthesis, but it also likes to eat — bacteria, other algae, bits of fish tissue.
Scientists have continued to study Pfiesteria and other potentially dangerous algae in the Earth’s waters in the two decades since East and others reported their symptoms. Some remain certain that Pfiesteria was the cause. Others insist the little critter was framed, and that another dinoflagellate was the real culprit.
Allen Place, a biochemistry professor at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, said the organism behind the Pocomoke fish kills was Karlodinium venificum — Karlo for short.
Place said he was asked by the state to conduct research of Pfiesteria toxins in the years after the outbreak. His job, he said, was to figure out what substances the fish were producing that spurred Pfiesteria to produce toxins. But no matter how much his team tried, they couldn’t get Pfiesteria to emit toxins.
Place said Karlo, which was also in the Pocomoke around the time of the fish kills, does produce toxins to devour the smaller algae that are its preferred cuisine.
The fish, he contends, were collateral damage.
Once Karlo’s toxins killed the fish, Place said, Pfiesteria swooped in to feed on their carcasses like one-celled buzzards. Pfiesteria, he said, are toxic to neither man nor menhaden.
“There has never been a fish kill in the Chesapeake Bay attributed to Pfiesteria where Karlodinium was not there in higher amounts,” he said. “Even in 1997 on the Pocomoke.”
For those who were exposed, it doesn’t matter which one-celled organism was to blame.
East said he’s still feeling the effects of his exposure — “tiredness and everything.”
“It just messed up your mind and stuff,” East said. “You would just get confused and everything from it. ...
“I don’t think it will ever leave you completely.” he said.
Yvonne Lawson took water samples from the Pocomoke for the Maryland Department of the Environment in 1997. Now retired in Jacksonville, Fla., Lawson said she worked on the river that summer from sunup to sundown.
“I got five or six blisters. I was in a boat and we had some fish on the side of the boat,” she said. “Their tails were flopping and it splattered me on the upper arms. ... When the water splashed on my arms, it did burn. ...
“I ended up with the front portion of my brain shutting down for six weeks. I thought I was getting Alzheimer’s, to be truthful.”
Lawson says she’s only 80 to 90 percent recovered from the symptoms that forced her into early retirement.
“I still lose words,” she said. “I will never be what I was.”
Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker was a young country doctor in Pocomoke City when patients started coming to his office reporting fatigue, cognitive problems, diarrhea, aching muscles, headaches, vertigo and tingling sensations.
“Everyone that presented had contact with the water,” he said.
Shoemaker, who is still involved in Pfiesteria research, said he treated about 200 patients.
The retired physician worked through Med-Chi, the state medical society, to spread word of the human symptoms. The cases came to the attention of Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, then Glendening’s health secretary.
“You had to be skeptical, and certainly I was skeptical,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman enlisted the help of physicians from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Hospital. They traveled to the Lower Eastern Shore to examine watermen and others who complained of symptoms related to toxic exposure.
East, Lawson and others were taken to Baltimore for medical tests.
Dr. Lynn Grattan, a University of Maryland medical school neuropsychologist, was part of the medical team. She said PET scans showed no evidence of brain damage, but she believed the symptoms were real.
“It was not mass hysteria. We did a very complete assessment of each individual,” Grattan said. “We also ruled out malingering or symptom-exaggerating.”
Wasserman went to see Glendening.
“I said, ‘At this point we have to close the river,’ ” Wasserman said. “He said, ‘Then close the river.’ ”
Glendening said he was dealing with a health and an economic crisis. He worried consumers would shun Maryland seafood for fear it was tainted. There was also concern that the announcement would cause tourists to avoid Ocean City during the lucrative Labor Day holiday weekend.
“I was aware what was at stake,” Glendening said. For many businesses, he knew, the Labor Day weekend could make or break the entire season.
Glendening called then-Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina to ask about a Pfiesteria outbreak in that state. Hunt told him the outbreak occurred after flooding broke down manure holding pits at hog farms on the Neuse River and swept nutrients into the state’s coastal waters.
“All of a sudden, everything started to click,” Glendening said. He closed the Pocomoke and announced the crisis.
He would later close two other Eastern Shore streams, the Chicamacomico River and Kings Creek. The rivers would stay closed until October.
Glendening says some leaders suggested that he should have delayed action. But if people had gone to the Shore and learned later they had been at risk, he said, they might have felt deceived.
J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican who represented Somerset County in the Maryland Senate at the time, said Glendening “erred on the side of extreme caution.”
“I think he ginned it up unreasonably,” he said.
Stoltzfus, who lives about 50 feet from the Pocomoke near Shelltown, said people thought they could be affected by Pfiesteria by crossing bridges in the area.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture estimated the state seafood industry lost $43 million in sales.
Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, a professor of aquatic science at North Carolina State University, visited Maryland shortly after Glendening’s announcement. She recalls seeing a sign on a seafood restaurant: Our crabs don’t come from Maryland. They come from North Carolina.
The irony, Burkholder said, was that North Carolina had suffered far more severe outbreaks of Pfiesteria.
For Burkholder, the fight against Pfiesteria was personal. After an accidental exposure to toxins in her laboratory, she experienced many of the symptoms reported on the Pocomoke.
Environmental factors can trigger the toxicity in harmful algae, Burkholder said. In the case of Pfiesteria, she said, it’s the presence of schools of menhaden.
The conditions on the Pocomoke in 1997 — the temperature and salinity of the water, the high level of nutrients and the presence of menhaden — were just right for an outbreak.
“This perfect-storm kind of conditions came along for this thing to bloom,” she said.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who was then the state Senate’s leading environmentalist, served on the commission Glendening named to study the problem after the outbreak. He said it doesn’t matter whether the problem was Pfiesteria or Karlo.
“Something very bad was going on,” Frosh said. “I didn’t know what was causing it, whether it was Pfiesteria or some other organism, but it seemed that pollution was the root cause.”
That was the conclusion reached by a group of scientists tasked with preparing a report for the commission, which was headed by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.
The team, headed by Boesch, identified nutrients as a likely contributor to the outbreak and called for controlling agricultural runoff.
Boesch recalled that farmers were upset and that there were charges that the Pfiesteria problem was a hoax. But Hughes and Glendening accepted the recommendation, and the governor proposed a sweeping agricultural cleanup bill in the 1998 General Assembly session. It was met with fierce resistance from farmers but passed in a modified form.
Under the compromise bill, nutrient management plans that were voluntary would become mandatory for farmers. Farmers would have to take steps to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. But the deadlines would be extended and enforcement would be left up to the farmer-friendly Department of Agriculture rather than environmental inspectors.
The legislation that resulted was “a great step forward” but not nearly enough, said Frosh, a Democrat. “It was the most that was politically achievable.”
Stoltzfus said farmers have responded well in the years since then.
“Farmers have done yeoman work,” he said.
Bay advocates say the experience of 1997 helped lay the groundwork for advances that have come in nutrient control since then — clean air legislation, an expanded cover crop program to soak up nutrients during winter, the “flush tax” to finance a modernization of the region’s sewer plants and tighter controls on phosphorus runoff.
“The crisis produced a new awareness of the bay among the public,” Glendening said.
Scientists say the lesson is that there must be no letting up in efforts to control the flow of nutrients into the bay. They point to a risk that cuts in federal spending on the bay cleanup and algae research in the Trump budget could lead to backsliding. The challenge could increase with the advance of climate change because harmful algae thrive in warmer waters, scientists say.
So why has Pfiesteria — or whatever else poisoned East and Lawson — gone dormant? There’s no consensus.
Burkholder theorizes that hurricanes such as Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003 flushed out the estuaries in North Carolina and Maryland, dispersing the organisms. Shoemaker thinks a discontinuation of the use of a copper-based fungicide could be the key. Place insists neither Pfiesteria nor Karlo caused the human symptoms, but says nutrients are a key factor in harmful algae blooms.
NOAA researcher Peter Moeller said the answers are “not anywhere near as simple as we paint them out to be.” He said nutrients and heavy metals both appear to be part of the toxic Pfiesteria recipe. Without nutrients, no bloom. Without heavy metals, no poison.
Kim Coble, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, said that while the bay is cleaner than in 1997, that doesn’t explain why the outbreaks didn’t recur on that scale in 1998 or the following years.
Coble said Pfiesteria is still out there, perhaps just waiting for the right conditions to come roaring back.
“Maybe it’s like cicadas,” she said. “Who knows?”