What might be called "the pfiesteria phenomenon" continues to dominate our lives around the Bay. As a phenomenon, it extends well beyond the natural events of recent weeks in some our tributaries. It has come onto the land and captured the attention of nearly everyone.
Even my regular poker group, where business is never discussed, and where we don't even know, as a rule, what any of us do for a living (a peculiar piece of social etiquette in Washington, D.C., where I live, and where the anonymity of the poker game is an escape from the world of titles and prerogatives.) Someone let drop what my job was and the game literally came to a halt while I answered a barrage of questions. A protocol of years duration was shattered over pfiesteria. Some other observations:
Most astonishing has been the media coverage. In my 30 years in this region, I have never seen an environmental issue capture so many column inches of the Washington Post; on one recent morning, there was a pfiesteria story at the masthead on the front page, and two stories, side-by-side, at the masthead of the Metro section. Everyone expects the Baltimore Sun to follow these things; but until now, getting a Chesapeake story in the Post was akin to getting a story on Long Island Sound printedin the "Gray Lady" of New York City. We used to kid that it was easier to get Chesapeake coverage in the New York Times and Long Island Sound coverage in the Post.
Part of the interest is related to the chillingly science fiction-like attributes of this toxic dinoflagellate. But a large part is also the very real human interest angle. The conflicts and interplay among human health concerns from exposure to the toxins; economic effects from public concern over the health of seafood and from the closure of rivers; the effects of remedial actions on farmers and their operations; and scientific uncertainties over what we are dealing with and what its potential for recurring might be, are the ingredients of a powerful human drama being played out in our region. As with any such drama, there is a potential for many to be hurt, and a challenge for measured, yet effective, government response.
In a very real sense, the concerns over pfiesteria and its related dinoflagellates have changed the nature of the nutrient issue in theChesapeake Bay and other estuaries and coasts from Delaware to Florida and probably beyond.
For the first time, there appears to be a tie between nutrient pollution and human health. In the past, there have been isolated cases of babies being affected by elevated nutrient levels in drinking water. But never before have there been health effects associated with the eutrophic conditions which are nearly endemic to coastal estuaries. And the range and nature of the effects in those isolated cases-from asthma to disorientation to memory loss-are in some ways more threatening to people than the impacts of conventional pollutants, which are often limited to intestinal ailments. This, in turn, intensifies public response and results in drops in fish sales and recreational fishing. It quickly becomes a serious problem that calls out for solutions-for more and better efforts to deal with the underlying causes.
It also means that we need to take a lot of time to keep things in perspective. For example, it is regularly reported that there are three rivers closed in the Chesapeake because of pfiesteria; in reality, the closed sections total about 30 miles out of 6,000 miles of Bay shoreline and 111,000 miles of rivers and streams in the watershed. While there are other areas in the Bay and rivers where cells have been identified, there has been only one certified pfiesteria fish kill to date. About 20,000 fish have been killed in the Chesapeake, mostly menhaden, which are not consumed by humans. This compares with 2 billion fish killed in North Carolina estuaries. The ultimate irony is the fish wholesalers and restaurant owners on television who are telling the public not to worry because none of their fish come from the Chesapeake, but are brought in from North Carolina!
It is no wonder the public is confused. Even the vocabulary used by the press obfuscates the issues. A recent, side-by-side set of articles in the Washington Post alternately characterized the Virginia policy to keep the rivers open as a "reserved" approach, and the Maryland approach to close the rivers as a "conservative" approach. I suppose they could have just as well described the Maryland approach as "activist," and Virginia's as "liberal" for allowing the watermen to continue to fish.
In part to dispel some of the confusion, and in part to start to pin down how many nutrients may relate to pfiesteria susceptibility, we recently used the Bay watershed model to do a quick comparison of loadings to the Pocomoke, where the pfiesteria outbreak occurred, and to the Bohemia, a river of comparable water volume on the Eastern Shore. While the Bohemia is similar to the Pocomoke in the dominance of agriculture as a source of nutrients, it is almost exclusively cropland, compared to the high intensity of the poultry industry in the Pocomoke.
We learned some interesting things from this preliminary comparison. As one might expect, less than 10 percent of the agriculture-based nitrogen in the Bohemia comes from manure, compared with almost two thirds in the Pocomoke. Phosphorous ratios were similar. As one might not expect, nitrogen loadings per acre are similar in the two watershed; and while both show high loadings (about double the norm for the Chesapeake basin), both are in the range for heavily agricultural basins.
The assumption that the Pocomoke would show substantially higher nitrogen loadings because of the dominance of manures is not borne out.
But the same is not true for phosphorous. Here, the Pocomoke shows about 30 percent higher loadings per acre than the Bohemia. This makes sense when you understand that the mix of nitrogen and phosphorous in poultry manure is such that crops absorb all the necessary nitrogen before they consume the phosphorous, so that over time, a surplus of phosphorous builds up.
Another thing we learned is that normal "best management practices," such as manure sheds and nutrient management plans, will achieve substantial reductions but still leave high loading levels in both rivers. The Pocomoke, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, already has 73 percent of chicken farmers with manure storage facilities and 67 percent with nutrient management plans. According to the model, despite these efforts, by the year 2000 we will have reduced nitrogen loadings only 20 percent and phosphorous only 30 percent. Further, current nutrient management plans are focused on reducing nitrogen to the correct application rate and do not take into account that in the case of manures, the more prevalent nutrient to control may be phosphorous.
Taking all of this into consideration leads us to ask where the solutions lie. While a lot more analysis needs to be done, a number of thoughts derive from the first-cut modeling effort. Moving manure from areas of high concentrations to other agricultural areas may make sense, especially to reduce phosphorous saturation in soils. But wouldn't the relocated manures have to be replaced with balanced commercial fertilizer in the Pocomoke, where the application levels for nitrogen levels do not appear to be too high? If so, how is the added cost to the farmer covered? And who pays to move the manure? And how do we deal with the residuals of phosphorous from years of predominantly poultry manure?
What role should the integrators and processors play in establishing new markets? Is simple shipment of the litter to replace commercial fertilizers enough? Or, should we be looking at the large-scale reprocessing, pelletizing and marketing of manure, as has been done in Europe?
Assuming simple shipment from one basin to another can be made a paying proposition, for how long can we plan to use manure in the receiving basins before they, too, begin to experience phosphorous saturation?
Perhaps part of the solution lies in pollution prevention by changing the feed mix to reduce poultry nutrient production?
These are just some of the questions, and the answers at this point are even more scarce. We do know that we have a job ahead of us, and that our success depends on informed efforts and voluntary participation by all-farmers, processors, public agencies and scientists-to find some of the solutions.
In an odd way, a one-celled critter in the sediments may have open up our minds to new ways of thinking about restoring the Chesapeake.