Old Dominion University scientists plan to search the lower Chesapeake Bay and its main tributaries in Virginia for a microorganism that has caused large fish kills in North Carolina.

Pfiesteria has been blamed for killing millions of fish and sickening several fishermen, divers and researchers who came in contact with the single-cell creature in North Carolina.

"In my opinion, pfiesteria is already in Virginia waters and it's only a matter of time before it produces a fish kill here," said Harold Marshall, a marine biologist at Old Dominion. "What we want to do is find out where in the Bay system these critters are and to see if there's a way to control them."

ODU wants the state and federal government to help finance the collection of samples taken from 200 to 300 spots in much of the Bay and the James, York, Rappahannock and Elizabeth rivers.

The sediment sampling would begin in the summer. After that it would take months of study to get an initial look at the potential threat of pfiesteria to the lower Bay, Marshall said.

Pfiesteria is only one of a number of microscopic organisms that can produce toxins and kill fish in the Bay under the right environmental conditions, Marshall said.

Nicknamed "the cell from hell," pfiesteria survives by preying on other organisms. It secretes a toxin that eats holes in fish, then slowly paralyzes their muscles and suffocates them. The microorganism reproduces as the fish die.

In North Carolina, pfiesteria has left millions of menhaden, shad and flounder dead and rotting on the shores of the Neuse and New rivers.

Research has shown that the tiny creatures proliferate and take on a deadly form when exposed to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus - byproducts of human and animal waste.

Scientists believe the organism became a problem in North Carolina as the state's hog farming industry and population rose dramatically the past decade.

There have been reports in recent years of pfiesteria being found in the Rappahannock and York rivers in Virginia, but no damage was reported.

Pfiesteria has existed for thousands and perhaps millions of years. It has been found as far north as Delaware and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. It can live in either fresh or salt water.

It's possible that the microorganism has lived harmlessly in the Bay and its tributaries for years because environmental conditions haven't been right for it to turn lethal, said Leonard W. Haas, a phytoplankton ecologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"I don't want to say it's only a matter of time before pfiesteria causes fish kills in Virginia waters," Haas said. "It may never happen. But generally, the deterioration of water quality will cause problems of that kind."

Authorities crack down on baby eel poaching

High prices being paid by Asian buyers for baby eels are prompting a wave of poaching, wildlife officials say.

"It's almost like drug dealing," said John W. McCord, a South Carolina marine biologist helping coastal states form a strategy for regulating the eel fishery. "There's a big market and an illegal fishery. They're worth so much, it's worth the risk."

A strong Asian market has pushed the price of so-called glass eels to levels shared by caviar and truffles. The 3-inch transparent eels fetch up to $300 a pound in some Asian countries.

The meat is especially prized in Japan, where it is often served barbecued in a dish called kabayaki.

It takes at least 2,000 glass eels to make a pound. But experts or those lucky at finding the creatures can make $2,000 to $3,000 a week.

Authorities believe word of the potential profits is spreading from Maine to Florida, drawing eel-seeking miscreants to rivers and streams.

Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, ban the capture of baby eels that struggle upstream each spring after having been spawned in the Atlantic Ocean.

But even in states like Maine and New Jersey, where the unendangered fish may be taken legally, marine police complain of illegally set nets, rampant trespassing on riverside properties and even violence.

"It's completely out of control," said Capt. Mark Chicketano, who is in charge of New Jersey's marine enforcement.

Maryland Natural Resources Police are responding with an baby eel patrol. So far, three arrest have been made.

"Everyone has been alerted to the problem and the concerns, and everyone has put people out to patrol for it," said Lt. Mike Sewell, who heads resources police on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore.

Pocomoke fish dying from sores; Md. DNR study to seek cause

Watermen working the Pocomoke River have seen the strange problem since last fall: bloody sores on hundreds of dying fish.

In April, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources began a five-week study to find out what is causing the disturbing deaths.

Scientists said the cause of the fungus sores may be runoff from a farm or a wastewater treatment plant. But they aren't sure.

"I've never seen anything like it where body parts are falling off fish," said Eric May, a pathologist for DNR. "We need to find out exactly what's causing this, then we can determine what the next step is."

The fungus does not appear to be harmful to humans or other marine life, May said.

Bass, carp, catfish and gizzard shad with sores have been reported by fisherman from Snow Hill down to the Pocomoke River's mouth, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

"I think there's some kind of pesticide or something getting in the river - these fish look like they've been dipped in acid," said Maryland waterman Ray Maddox. "It's bad when you spray something on a field and everything there is dead as hell the next day."

Nearly a quarter of his 125-pound catch one day in April were spotted with the sores.

"I used to catch 150 to 200 pounds of catfish a day," he said. "Today I caught six - maybe 10 pounds worth - because they're dying."

Va. poll response: Development need not hurt environment

Most Virginia voters believe the state can promote economic development and jobs without harming the environment, according to a poll.

The statewide survey commissioned by the Virginia Environmental Endowment also showed 47 percent of the 786 registered voters contacted said they would sacrifice future jobs in exchange for luring nonpolluting industries to the state. Forty-two percent said they would not.

The poll, released in April, was conducted by telephone from Feb. 28 to March 3. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. It done by Peter D. Hart, a key pollster for the Democratic Party, and Republican strategist Glen Bolger.

It found that 86 percent of respondents thought it was possible to both protect the environment and promote development. Only 9 percent felt the two objectives are mutually exclusive.

Among those surveyed, 67 percent said they would back imposing stiff fines on polluters, even if the state developed an anti-business reputation; 27 percent said it wasn't worth that risk.

When asked whether tougher restrictions on agricultural runoff to protect the Chesapeake Bay was worth the increased costs of the regulation to land owners, 61 percent said it was worth the trade-off, while 28 percent said it was not.

Those surveyed also were asked whether they would support a policy of paying property owners for development rights to protect rural areas if it meant other state programs would lose funding. Forty-three percent said it was worth the trade-off, while 44 percent disagreed.

When asked how important a gubernatorial candidate's position on the environment and pollution would be: 59 percent said extremely important, 31 percent said important and 9 percent said not important.

When asked the same question about education, and crime and violence, 82 percent said both issues would be extremely important. The economy and job creation were ranked as extremely important by 72 percent and campaign finance reform 27 percent.

Among the poll's other findings:

  • More than 50 percent said the state was doing enough or making good progress when it comes to controlling air pollution, preserving wilderness and natural areas, ensuring adequate drinking water and balancing economic development with a healthy environment.

  • 49 percent said the state is doing too little to control pollution in the state's rivers and watersheds.

  • 50 percent said the state is doing too little to preserve small farms and rural areas from urban and commercial sprawl.