Pocomoke's 1997 troubles not forgotten


SHELLTOWN, Md. - Eagles and ospreys and showers of bright warbler song. Mighty bald cypresses and hours of unbroken forest, studded with the blooms of wild azalea and native viburnum.

From the quiet headwater swamps where we began to the wide open cordgrass marshes where we "took out" three days later, a recent kayak trip down the twisty old Pocomoke River was a joyous passage through spring.

Less than a decade ago, such a trip might have been considered dangerous to one's health. The Pocomoke was on the list of America's most endangered rivers, and "For Sale" signs were posted along its banks.

Tiny Shelltown, near where the river joins the broad Pocomoke Sound, was encamped with media, drawn by news of an alarming outbreak of toxic algae, identified at the time as Pfiesteria piscicida.

No one recalls that time more vividly than John Rafter - though for him some of the details will always be fuzzy. A water quality inspector for the Maryland Department of Environment, Rafter was called in early June of 1997 to examine a fish kill near a chicken farm around Shelltown.

Rockfish, bluefish, white perch, menhaden and others had ugly, ulcerous holes in them and big chunks of fins missing. "Some seemed almost hollow, like they had been eaten out from inside," he recalls.

He took photos, never touching the fish. The next day, looking for the source of the problem, Rafter paddled his kayak near Pocomoke City's sewage treatment plant, reaching underwater to fill sample bottles.

He paddled ashore and went for a favorite lunch deal, the Personal Pan pizza and salad at the local Pizza Hut. He went to the men's room to wash up when it hit him:

"When I came out I didn't know where I was or what I was doing. I just stood there for maybe 15 seconds and finally said to myself, 'OK, somewhere there's a table here with your newspaper on it.' I found it, and seemed to be all right."

But that night as he went to bed he began to have a "sinking sensation," as though "my head was passing through the pillow, the mattress, the floor. The next morning, Saturday, I was totally disoriented. I couldn't sit upright in the bed."

His girlfriend insisted that they go to the emergency room. "I thought it was a brain tumor," Rafter says.

The doctors treated him for an inner ear infection, but the dizziness, fatigue and confusion continued. At work, he found that other MDE employees who'd been on the Pocomoke were having similar problems.

Medical experts from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland were bused to the Pocomoke. "They thought it was a waste of time, but pretty quickly recognized that short-term memory was impaired in all of us," Rafter says.

Some two dozen suspected victims of the river's water were assembled by then. "They were testing a water skier who couldn't even walk a straight line ... a woman who'd gone to the store with six items on her shopping list and came home with none of them," he says.

A few days later, brain scans showed a striking pattern in most of those with health complaints - a unique signature, a pattern of disturbance in the memory section of their brains.

The prime suspect was Pfiesteria, a toxic algae with the apparent capacity to attack fish and interfere with brain function. The nutrient-rich waters of the Pocomoke, fed by the runoff from huge concentrations of poultry manure in the watershed, created conditions ripe for explosions of such algae, researchers said.

Nearly eight summers later, a repeat of 1997 has not occurred, and some scientists now believe that it was not Pfiesteria that killed the fish Rafter saw, but another, more common algae. But that algae, they say, would not cause the problems in humans that were thoroughly documented by researchers.

Rafter, whose symptoms all proved reversible, says he has heard "plenty" about "Pfiesteria hysteria."

"I'd hear people joking about it, wondering whether it ever really happened. I got pretty tired of that," he said. "Look, I never missed a day of work, I never sued anyone, but believe me, it was real. Who goes into the ER early Saturday morning when they don't have to?"

Research continues into the role of Pfiesteria and other toxic algae played. Could it recur? The over-abundance of manure and nutrient-rich river water have not changed greatly despite regulations imposed after the 1997 crisis.

We must understand what did happen, because it was clear at the time that another major outbreak, or a spread to other rivers, would have ruined markets for bay seafood. And something else precious:

In the fall of 1997, I was paddling another favorite river with my 13-year-old daughter when, in the dark, we heard fish thrashing all around. My immediate instinct was to paddle furiously to get away, to get off the water, fearing it was a killer algae at work again.

A few nights later, the same phenomenon occurred. I shone a flashlight this time, and it was a wondrous sight, thousands of baby rockfish on their way to the bay.

But I realized one does not have to literally lose a body of water to pollution to lose the ability to enjoy it.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad