The Lurking Perils of "Pfiesteria"; August 1999; Scientific American Magazine; by Burkholder; 8 Page(s)
On a hot, humid October afternoon in 1995, I stood in a gently rocking boat, watching hundreds of thousands of bloody, dying fish break the mirrorlike surface of North Carolina's Neuse Estuary, where the Neuse River mixes with salty water from the Atlantic Ocean. Rising up out of the river, writhing, the fish gasped for air, then became still, floating on their sides. They were mostly Atlantic menhaden, small fish that serve as food for many larger species valued by commercial fishermen. An occasional flounder, croaker or eel also bobbed on the surface. Seagulls lined the shores of the nearly eight square miles of kill zone; a feast was in the making.
With my team from North Carolina State University (N.C.S.U.), I was collecting water samples from the area to try to determine the cause of the deaths. The bloody sores on the fish and their erratic behavior signaled a possible toxic outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida, a single-celled microorganism that we had first seen in 1989 and had later linked to fish kills in several major estuaries. By the time this kill was over, 15 million silvery carcasses would carpet the water.