The Pfiesteria Fish Crisis Was Caused By...Fish
Inconvenient Truths About Pollution And Fish Around The Chesapeake Bay
May 12, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-America's East Coast faced another classic environmental crisis last fall. Fish were dying from toxic attacks by a natural organism, Pfiesteria piscicida.
The Pfiesteria were attacking mainly menhaden, a small, oily fish used for making fertilizer and pet food, in small rivers of the Maryland-Virginia Eastern Shore.
The Pfiesteria toxins caused open wounds on many fish and killed about 30,000-probably enough to fill one good-sized dump truck.
The nation's media seized on the new "environmental danger." Pfiesteria made the front pages and the nightly TV news.
THE SIERRA CLUB compared the situation to the Cuyahoga River's catching fire in Cleveland during the 1970s and immediately began blaming manure runoff from the poultry industry.
City folk stopped eating fish. Panic-stricken urbanites forgot their previous fears about Britain's "mad cow disease" and went back to beef. Watermen and seafood restaurants lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland closed two small rivers to fishing and swimming. Vice President Al Gore, on cue, directed the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop "much tighter controls" on livestock and poultry wastes.
NOW THE STUDY commission has made its report. The Maryland Blue Ribbon Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commission says it concurs with virtually all the scientists who have studied Pfiesteria: The toxic outbreak was caused by fish!
The commission said there was "no demonstrable cause and effect linkage" between nonpoint nutrient sources-such as agricultural runoff-and toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria.
"In fact, if suitable concentrations of Pfiesteria are present," the commission report says, "toxic outbreaks can occur even if nutrient concentrations are relatively low. Scientists believe, and the commission concurs, that the primary stimuli for the transformation of the dinoflagellate into toxic stages are chemical cues secreted or excreted by the fish."
THE BLUE RIBBON commission suspected agriculture. It's one of the few industries on the Eastern Shore. But the commission found no agricultural link.
Nevertheless, we're now getting the activists' Phase II. Since they care little about science anyway, they're forging ahead with a campaign that could destroy the poultry industry.
William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says publicly we shouldn't exonerate farming just for lack of evidence.
Even though he was a member of the commission that found no linkage, he says, "There is a well-known connection between Pfiesteria-like algal blooms and overloads of nutrients."
BAKER APPARENTLY has a personal distaste for "factory farms that concentrate poultry, cows and hogs at almost unimaginable densities." Baker's Bay Foundation and nine allied organizations have now proposed a "chicken tax" that they describe as "a way of making the chicken industry pay its fair share of the costs of cleaning up pollution caused by manure runoff."
Apparently they were waiting to sandbag the poultrymen, evidence or no. A Maryland legislator says he will introduce the tax. State and Federal bureaucrats are scurrying to be on the politically correct side.
BUT THE eco-activists' dislike of intensive agriculture is not the question.
Which part of "no demonstrable cause and effect linkage" did Baker not understand?
And what "manure runoff" are the eco-activists talking about? Virtually all of the big poultry operations store their manure and then spread it on fields as organic fertilizer for crops we need and want. Those nutrients are mostly taken up by plants. They are not flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
Outdoor hogs and chickens, raised on the old farming model of 1940, produced wastes that washed into the nearest stream with every rainstorm. But today's poultry industry is zero-discharge.
THE CITIES around the Chesapeake Bay are not zero-discharge, however. Most of the nitrogen from the human wastes and auto exhausts of Baltimore, Washington and other bayside cities flows directly into the bay's waters. Little is removed by modern sewage treatment. Moreover, toxic blooms of Pfiesteria and similar organisms have occurred in waters that distinctly fail to qualify as nutrient enriched.
Is intensive agriculture bad for the bay, as Baker seems to believe? Those farmers so despised by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are doing far more to save the bay and our natural environment than the foundation's misleading press releases.
High-yield crops and confinement feeding of livestock and poultry are producing far more food per acre, thus leaving millions of extra acres for nature.
IF AMERICA raised its chickens on free range today, we'd have to plow additional wildlands equal to the land area of New Jersey. Is that what the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wants?
The management practices of the confinement hog and poultry feeders are contributing heavily to the goal of a 40 percent reduction in the bay's "nutrient loading" by 2000.
That is a far bigger improvement than we have seen from "modern" sewage treatment and environmental speeches. Intensive farming provides affordable, high-quality protein for those most vulnerable to malnutrition-our own at-risk children and the hungry children of the world's poorest nations. Baker and his colleagues seem to have confused a nostalgia for old-style farming with real conservation. Their confusion is endangering the Chesapeake Bay and wildlands all over the globe.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.