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Environment: Massacre On The Bay

Could chicken farms be killing huge numbers of Chesapeake fish?

Adam Cohen/TIME

Time cover

SHELLTOWN, Md. (TIME, Sep. 29) -- John Goodall, a river watcher with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, stood on a bridge over a picturesque stretch of King's Creek last week tugging at his bright red fisherman's overalls and frowning as he looked down at his catch. With a single toss of his net, Goodall had pulled up 14 perky-looking menhaden, a finger-length bait fish native to Maryland's Eastern Shore. But on closer inspection, all except one of the fish turned out to have ugly red-brown lesions across their silvery skin, where bacteria were literally eating them alive. "It's just horrific," said Goodall, wearing rubber gloves as he sorted through the infected fish. "And it doesn't look like it's slowing down."

King's Creek is one of three Chesapeake Bay tributaries Maryland has closed in the wake of an alarming outbreak of deadly waterborne bacteria. Along with thousands of fish killed and infected, as many as 28 people who have come into contact with the water have developed symptoms including skin rashes, respiratory problems and memory loss. The culprit appears to be an obscure microbe called Pfiesteria piscicida, which under certain circumstances turns toxic. Though the precise trigger remains unclear, suspicion has fallen on agricultural runoffs, particularly from the region's numerous chicken farms. In addition to closing waterways, Governor Parris Glendening has named a panel to investigate the runoff problem and has called a summit of Governors from surrounding states to consider regional solutions.

The first sign of trouble in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries came last fall, when local watermen started coming down with unusual health problems. Fishermen also reported sick fish, particularly menhaden, whose schooling habits make them especially vulnerable. But it was two fish kills in the Pocomoke River last month that signaled ecological crisis. In the first, more than 10,000 fish turned up dead. Three weeks later, thousands of distressed menhaden thrashed around the surface as sea gulls swooped down and ate them. The state set up an on-site monitoring station, with orders to close any waterway where more than 20% of fish had lesions. By last week parts of the Pocomoke, the Chicamacomico and King's Creek were declared off limits.

Scientists say it is too soon to know why these Pfiesteria became toxic, but most suspect "nutrient loading," that is, an excess of nutrition pouring into the waters in which the bacteria live. The nutrients could come from many sources, including sewage- treatment plants. But in an area that is home to about 600 million chickens (outnumbering humans about 500 to 1), poultry is the leading suspect. Chicken manure is commonly used as fertilizer on farmlands around the affected waterways. Environmentalists say when it runs off into the water, it brings excessive levels of nitrogen. They have called for restrictions on the use of manure, including more use of sheds to prevent it from being washed into the water by rainfall.

But chicken farmers complain that they are being unfairly singled out. "I don't think it's been proved yet," says Ralph Smith, whose family operates seven chicken houses on the Eastern Shore. "They're pointing fingers our way, but it's probably a combination of things." The poultry industry has already reacted angrily to calls for mandatory nutrient-management legislation, and followers of state politics predict it will use its clout in the legislature to fight any new restrictions. "Poultry farmers are a small voting bloc, and many don't make a lot of money, but the poultry industry is very wealthy and has been very active in politics," says Paul Herrnson, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "I'm sure they will be very involved in protecting their interests."

Other states faced with recent Pfiesteria outbreaks have been less aggressive than Maryland. When 14 million fish died in North Carolina in 1995, some state officials publicly mocked the scientist who discovered the bacteria, and the state has resisted adopting major reforms. Across the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia is seeing lesion rates as high as 75% in its Rappahannock River but has decided to keep it open. Glendening says each state must make its own decisions, but that for Maryland the recent outbreak requires stern action. "The Chesapeake Bay is a fundamental part of what Maryland is," he says. "You can almost define Maryland by how well the bay is doing."

So far, most Marylanders seem to back their Governor's tough-minded approach. Nowhere is support stronger than along the water. Fred Maddox, who has been fishing in the area around Shelltown since the 1930s, reaches into a desk in his seafood-company office and pulls out a grim photographic record of Pfiesteria's impact. "Here's a rockfish with its mouth all messed up," he says. "Here's a carp with lesions on its side. Here's one with its nose all messed up." The state needs to limit agricultural runoff before the problem gets any worse, Maddox says. "We're already seeing more dead fish than we need to see."





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