Local News

Maryland Battling Pfiesteria, Asking North Carolina to Help

Posted September 13, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— When the pfiesteria infested the waters of the Pocomoke River and hurt researchers in Maryland a month ago, the state began pushing for change. Now researchers are asking North Carolina to join the battle.

For 60 years, Fred Maddox and his family have made a living in the swirling tides of Maryland's lower Pocomoke River. But for now, his catch is coming from different waters. Pfiesteria piscicida, the same fish-killing organism North Carolina is battling, appears to be preying on fish in Maryland's currents.

Three weeks ago, 10 people developed memory problems that appear to be pfiesteria-related, according to a team of doctors hired by the state. Four of the victims developed abnormal brain patterns. Two portions of the Pocomoke and nearby King's Creek are closed until further notice.

Tommy East is glad to see Maryland taking a stand, though he believes officials should have acted sooner. The commercial fisherman claims to suffer from lung and brain problems he developed a year ago.

The waters he and the others attribute to the illness have become the scene of intensive scrutiny.

A month ago, the state of Maryland set up a mobile command center near the site of the fish kill, and 10 state employees, including some researchers, come to work there every day. As long as the water is off limits, each of them is on 24-hour standby.

"It's about like a fire whistle going off, you know, we've got a way of getting people here pretty quickly," said Quentin Johnson, logistics coordinator

State leaders said they are aggressively trying to figure out why the outbreak is happening now.

Thursday, the governor announced a new task force that will consider the impact of farms and the state's growing poultry industry. Officials have not confirmed that either is to blame. So the mystery remains. Something is causing the organism to flare up, and no one anywhere is sure why.

Later this month, the governors of six states, including North Carolina will gather in Annapolis to talk about possible strategies. Congress is also helping by pledging seven-million dollars to research pfiesteria-related health problems.