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U.S. to help fight algae Team from 9 agencies to deploy if outbreaks of Pfiesteria recur; 'Some states are concerned'; Warm and wet spring creates conditions for return of problems


WASHINGTON -- The federal government is putting together an emergency team to help Maryland and other states cope with outbreaks of toxic algae such as Pfiesteria.

Officials from at least nine federal agencies met at the White House on Tuesday and pledged to pool resources.

Donald Scavia, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the agencies want to make sure that if Pfiesteria returns to East Coast waters this year, states will have help with everything from sampling affected rivers to testing seafood to make sure it's safe to eat.

This spring's warm weather and abundant rainfall have created "favorable conditions" for renewed outbreaks of Pfiesteria, red tide and other algae that endanger people and sea life, Suzanne E. Schwartz, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Oceans and Coastal Protection Division, said in Senate testimony yesterday.

"Some states are concerned that they could be overwhelmed if they did have serious outbreaks," Schwartz said after testifying before a Senate subcommittee on oceans and fisheries. "We want to make sure they have all the resources they might need."

Maryland closed three rivers on the Lower Eastern Shore last summer after outbreaks of Pfiesteria killed fish. Toxins from the microorganism were linked to loss of memory and other problems among watermen and others. State workers are sampling Lower Shore rivers, but have found no signs that Pfiesteria is active.

Blooms more severe

Pfiesteria is one of the harmful algal blooms that affect coastal states from Alaska to Maine. The blooms are becoming more widespread and severe, said Terry D. Garcia, assistant Commerce secretary for oceans and atmosphere.

Red tide killed about 20 million fish off the coast of Texas last summer. Brown tides have virtually wiped out Long Island Sound's once-flourishing bay scallop-fishing industry.

Another dangerous alga that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, a deadly disease, has forced officials to place the entire Alaska coastline offlimits to shellfishing.

Other algae blooms, while not poisonous, can kill fish by consuming all the oxygen in the water, creating huge "dead zones" devoid of sea life.

About half of all U.S. estuaries, including the Chesapeake, have areas with low or no oxygen for part of the year, said Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

Scientists think some, but not all, of the outbreaks are fueled by runoff from farm fields and cities, which act as fertilizer for the algae blooms.

Economists estimate that toxic algae have cost the U.S. economy $1 billion in the past 10 years in lost seafood sales alone, Garcia told the Senate subcommittee yesterday.

"The economic effect is just staggering, and if it continues unabated the effects will only get worse," Garcia said. "Half of the U.S. population now lives within 50 miles of the coasts, so this is going to affect a lot of people."

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican and chairwoman of the Senate panel, said it is "even more troubling that science cannot fully explain why this is happening or how to prevent it in the future."

Snowe and Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, are sponsoring a bill that would allocate $24 million for research on harmful algae blooms next year.

The federal government will spend $8 million this year for scientific research into the causes of the outbreaks. But each state has been on its own coping with the results, which can range from devastated shellfish harvests to human illnesses.

Last summer's Pfiesteria incidents in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries made it plain that "this is a national problem, and we need a national response," Garcia said.

Maryland a target

Scavia, the NOAA scientist, said this summer's federal help will target Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina and Florida -- states whose rivers have had outbreaks of Pfiesteria or its close kin. Those states have split $1.5 million in federal money to start early monitoring for the toxic microorganisms.

The federal government is paying for extra workers to staff the two laboratories, in North Carolina and Florida, that are equipped to identify Pfiesteria in water samples. It is helping to train the states' workers in standardized methods for taking water, fish and shellfish samples.

If necessary, the EPA, NOAA and other federal agencies will lend biologists and boats to help take samples of suspected toxic outbreaks, Scavia said.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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