WITH SUMMER fast approaching, Maryland is bracing for the return of a decidedly unwanted visitor -- the toxic microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida that whipped up panic in the Chesapeake last year, resulting in closing of three waterways for health concerns.
It's unclear whether the normally benign creature will change into the toxic form that attacked fish and humans in the Lower Shore tributaries last summer. Or whether it will find the same brackish water conditions (and pollution) linked to its virulence.
History suggests that Pfiesteria may break out again, despite millions of dollars to monitor and combat the "ambush alga" and farm runoff-reduction plans enacted by Maryland. Since its initial discovery in North Carolina waters, the toxic terror has shown up there for the past eight summers.
There's still a lot to learn about this strange organism, which goes through 20 changes of form in a life cycle. Fish kills and watermen ailments were tied to the algal outbreak, but more research is needed to pinpoint cause and effect and to develop effective protections.
Scientists have yet to come up with a true test to detect toxic Pfiesteria in waters. The way in which human contact with infested waters results in rashes, respiratory problems and memory loss is also under study.
In addition to study in two East Coast laboratories, our main defense is an early warning system. Since February, state workers have been collecting thousands of fish samples in suspect rivers and creeks, looking for the telltale open sores indicating Pfiesteria. They've found no problem yet, nor have commercial fishermen.
The federal government will spend $8 million this year to combat Pfiesteria and other toxic algae; Maryland and four other states got money to begin early-year fish monitoring. Nine federal agencies have formed an emergency response team, while Maryland has three teams ready.
This time, the response should be quick and knowledgeable, in contrast to the halting steps when the organism was first discovered last year in the bay.
Pub Date: 6/08/98