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When Fish Die, No Swimming Allowed

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NEW BERN — North Carolina has new plans to keep swimmers and boaters safe from pfiesteria-related fish kills. No one will be allowed in the water in the first place.

Starting this summer, the state will order people out of rivers when those kills strike.

State officials say not everyone was taking the pfiesteria threat seriously. They would advise people not to go near the water after a fish kill, but people would not stay out. So, now, the state plans to do more than simply advise people. There will be a price to pay for those who ignore future warnings.

Brandon Sykes was on the water Tuesday, and didn't leave empty-handed, but he says he doesn't eat what he catches in the Neuse River. He says he throws back all the fish he catches.

Now, officials say, if a fish kill occurs and appears to be pfiesteria-related, the state will temporarily close that section of the river.

"I saw during 1995, during the big fish kills, people who were jet-skiing and water-skiing and crabbing in the area, and they said "well, if the state really thought there was a problem, they'd say don't come,'" says Debbie Crane at N.C. Health and Human Services. "Well, that's what we're doing."

While the new policy is in place to protect people, commercial fishermen are among those who are unhappy about the decision. They say the state doesn't have the resources to know which fish kills are pfiesteria-related. If the state closes down waters by mistake, it could impact their income.

"Who's going to do that consulting, and who's going to make that arbitrary decision as far as this being shut down?" asked Jerry Schill of the N.C. Fisheries Association. "And are those people going to look at the big picture rather than just a bunch of headlines?"

Commercial fishermen say they always avoid areas where there are fish kills, but state officials say they want to make sure everyone is safe. They say they will be very careful when they decide which sections of the rivers to close down.