Burton on the Bay:

Beware the

Ides of March-

About that time, Pfiesteria is likely to roar in like a lion

I don't know much about the Ides of March so associated with Julius Caesar, but the arrival of that month on Sunday brings another reminder - one we'd have soon as skipped.

Whether March comes in like a lion remains to be seen, but it could go out like a lion rather than the customary lamb. The winter has been unusually mild, the Bay and its tributary waters are considerably warmer than usual - and the Pfiesteria watch is on.

An eruption, the first of '98, could come in March. Hopefully not, hopefully not any time thereafter, but that's wishful thinking.

The odds are overwhelming that we haven't seen the last of this nasty microorganism. So if an eruption is to come, maybe it's better it does so in March, when the General Assembly is still in session.

An outbreak would be the needed reminder that some drastic legislation is in order. Please, no more programs based on voluntary compliance. We all know what that means.

Let the other guy volunteer. My little pile of chicken poop isn't going to hurt the Chesapeake.

It Happened Last Year

In March of 1997, news from North Carolina informed us of water quality problems, massive fish kills and sick watermen. Not long thereafter there were rumblings from the Pocomoke on our lower Eastern Shore about sick fish and sick watermen.

Unlike North Carolina, only briefly did we downplay our problem before initiating an investigation. By midsummer, the word Pfiesteria came from the lips of just about everyone who used the Bay, consumed its seafood or even knew its name.

Six months previously no one could even pronounce Pfiesteria, but by late June it made TV big time. By early August, it led newscasts and hogged the headlines of newspapers. People were frightened. It was the biggest news story of the year.

Pfiesteria hysteria prevailed. With nightly television news pushing the story, many gave up seafood from the Chesapeake, and prices of Maryland seafood plummeted. Some sports fishermen put aside their tackle, charter trips were canceled.

Despite pleas and reassurances from everyone from the governor to crabpickers, it didn't let up until cooler weather curbed outbreaks - as predicted.


Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Since then, other than among watermen, farmers and recreational Bay users, Pfiesteria has been pretty much out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Legislators and politicians, for the most part, figure one of two things. 1) The problem will go away if they ignore it. 2) Voluntary curtailments on the use of chicken manure as fertilizer will solve it.

What we have here is the typical nightmare among those who make and administer laws and regulations: it's time to stand up and take a position in something beyond good versus evil, the unpopular versus the popular, or apple pie and motherhood.

But what to do about Pfiesteria isn't black and white. Farmers are good hardworking guys trying to make a living, and they vote. Watermen are good hardworking guys trying to make a living and they vote too. And now, for those who live and thrive on their popularity with voters, it's decision time.

Hey, this isn't like the recent treadmill emissions test hullabaloo, where constituents were more upset with the idea of turning over their vehicles to attendants for testing - and paying a few extra bucks to do so - than they were with consequences of harmful tailpipe exhausts impacting the Chesapeake.

You can't see emissions rising into the air and falling back to earth on the waters of the Chesapeake. The resulting degradation from auto emissions comes slowly. Constituents held their objections to treadmills above the welfare of the Bay, so that decision was easy for many politicians. However, thanks to a governor hard-nosed on the issue, the treadmills will turn whether citizens liked them or not.

The treadmill bashers had it both ways. They got to spout off in their most belligerent fashion without sacrificing the Bay - and the air we breathe. The blame (and why not the thanks?) is laid on the governor. The complainers end up heroes.

Alas, this is an election year. A close race is predicted, and the governor's hard nose isn't that hard anymore. Obviously not hard enough to smell all the foul air from chicken dung at poultry farms. Also, since the last traces of Pfiesteria were publicized last October, the scourge is now pretty much forgotten. Everyone trusts it will just go away.


Wishful Thinking Doesn't Work

But, barring a miracle, it won't. Even if it does, do those who make and administer the laws believe for a moment that all that chicken crap will disappear?

Have the spines of those who make the decisions become as soft and pliable as the stuff that is scooped up from chicken houses?

Wishful thinking didn't cure the ills of North Carolina, where swine and poultry farmers have much more clout than watermen, and wishful thinking won't prevail here.

Wishful thinking only buys time - until the elections are over - and at the expense of the Chesapeake.

Effective action is in order now that we're heading into another season when Pfiesteria outbreaks are almost certain.

Thankfully, DNR doesn't rely on wishful thinking. Already it's gearing up for warm weather. Hotlines are being strung where callers can talk to live people for answers, reassurances or just plain information. Pamphlets are being made available to inform Bay users and seafood consumers about Pfiesteria. Rapid response teams are being organized, and research is being stepped up. The budget for the coming fiscal year includes $1 million to be spent to finance seven positions to respond to outbreaks of the cell from hell and other similar organisms. Those new Pfiesteria watchers will also evaluate the effects of habitat quality and pollutant sources, and assess baseline fish health and water quality within at-risk rivers.

Hopefully, there will be considerable emphasis on a media response effort to avoid any repetition of the circus of '97. The seafood industry cannot take another big hit, nor can we afford for Bay users to be frightened off the water. Neither can businesses dependent on the patronage of fishermen and boaters be expected to endure losses due to a misinformed public wallowing in needless panic.

Enough said.

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Volume VI Number 8
February 26-March 4, 1998
New Bay Times

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