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Press Release


Nancy F. Winter (804) 225-3626
Suzanne R. Jenkins, VMD, MPH (804) 359-9909


(Norfolk, Va.)—Since the mysterious dinoflagellate Pfiesteria appeared in the late summer of 1997, scientists and state agencies in Virginia have gone to great lengths to find out more about the toxin-producing microbe and its effects on fish and on humans.

Since 1997, funding to find, culture and study Pfiesteria piscicida (its full biological name) and its potential effects in the state totals $5 million. Early results of those studies were released today at a Pfiesteria Seminar during the Virginia Academy of Science meeting at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University.

Pfiesteria has been confirmed after fish kills in tidal waters of neighboring North Carolina in the early-1990’s and in several Chesapeake Bay rivers in Maryland during the warmest months of 1997 and 1998. So far, Virginia’s closest brush with Pfiesteria has been during a fish kill of mostly menhaden in September 1997 in the Pocomoke River, which flows along a five-mile border between Maryland and Virginia.

Difficult to define because it possesses plant and animal characteristics, Pfiesteria is believed to have 24 stages in its microscopic life. Only a few of those stages produce a toxin that can kill fish and may make humans who are exposed to the toxins ill. Pfiesteria’s most common environment is in the sediment or waters of estuaries, and it can activate when water temperatures turn warm during summer and early fall.

Because Pfiesteria has been reported to disrupt or destroy natural resources and may make people sick, Virginia agencies and scientists are focusing their energies on learning all they can about the microorganism and on being prepared if the organism releases toxin.

With responsibility for the effects of Pfiesteria on human health, the Virginia Department of Health contracts with Virginia Commonwealth University to conduct a federally funded study of people who could get sick during a release of Pfiesteria toxin. Effects that have been reported previously include mental confusion, memory loss, skin lesions and other symptoms categorized as Estuary Associated Syndrome.

According to VCU’s Elizabeth E. Turf, Ph.D., who is directing the study of 112 people exposed to Virginia’s coastal waters, "By conducting these periodic health exams, we should be able to see any effects of the toxin if Pfiesteria appears this summer. That’s something we haven’t had before. With the funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we can collect this significant information about possible effects on people, " Turf said.

The lead Pfiesteria spokesperson for potential human health advisories and public health response is Assistant State Epidemiologist Suzanne R. Jenkins, VMD, MPH. "As families head off on summer vacations in Virginia, anyone concerned about the safety of the waterways should use common sense as the best guide," Jenkins said. "Just as you wouldn’t or shouldn’t swim among dead fish, you wouldn’t or shouldn’t eat seafood that is dead or has lesions when you take it from the water. Pfiesteria doesn’t pose a risk for those eating Virginia seafood. If it has been handled appropriately and cooked properly, Virginia seafood is safe," she said.

"We have a toll-free telephone number for anyone who wants to get more information about Pfiesteria from our Division of Waterborne Hazards Control," Jenkins said. "Also, if anyone feels sick after being exposed to a fish kill in Virginia’s salt waters, they can call 1-888-238-6154. We have a new webpage at that can provide additional information."

Since 1997, more than 220 hotline calls have been received from people requesting information, reporting fish kills or reporting possible symptoms.

One of Virginia’s chief detectives on the Pfiesteria case is Harold G. Marshall, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at ODU’s Department of Biological Sciences. Marshall’s lab has analyzed 2,096 water samples from 182 sites in Virginia waters taken during the warm weather months of 1998. What Marshall found under his electron microscope was not Pfiesteria piscicida but something very similar.

"Of our total water samples taken between May and October of 1998," Marshall said, " 40 percent contained some very similar species to Pfiesteria called Pfiesteria Complex Organisms (PCOs) that may or may not produce toxins. At least once during the time we took water samples, 90 percent of all sites contained PCOs. We also cultured live PCOs from 83 percent of the sediment samples from Virginia waters," Marshall said.

The work of Marshall and fellow researchers at other agencies in Virginia to understand the elusive Pfiesteria is supported by a combination of federal and state funds expected to near $5.3 million by year’s end. Virginia scientists also are working closely with researchers in Maryland, North Carolina and Florida to look at new methods of spotting the toxic stages of Pfiesteria. "Great strides have been made in using various genetic probes to detect the presence of Pfiesteria and related species," Marshall said.

While ODU scientists investigate the water and sediment samples from Virginia’s estuaries, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point collects and analyzes finfish, such as young menhaden, from tidal waters. VIMS looks for fish with lesions, which have been linked to Pfiesteria.

"Many people associate fish lesions or sores with Pfiesteria," reported Wolfgang K. Vogelbein, Ph.D., Associate Professor, from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, "but actually lesions can be present for a number of other reasons." Vogelbein’s research demonstrates that the harmful fungus Aphanomyces is consistently found in menhaden lesions and is considered to be the lesions’ cause.

Whether or not Pfiesteria plays a role in initiating the development of lesions is unclear. "It’s a good idea for anyone to report a sizeable amount of fish found with lesions, but people shouldn’t panic and assume the lesions came from Pfiesteria," Vogelbein said.

In addition to monitoring finfish, VIMS conducts extensive research on all aspects of Pfiesteria, including culturing PCOs in the laboratory, studying fish tissue and identifying the organisms under a scanning electron microscope, as well as developing sophisticated methods of identification. VIMS scientists also are involved in a detailed study in the Great Wicomoco River to understand the relationships between PCOs, fish lesions and environmental variables.

Just how the responsible agencies would respond in the event of an actual Pfiesteria toxin release has been outlined in an emergency plan developed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The agency maintains a 24-hour on-call environmental response team. When a fish kill is reported, DEQ boats go out immediately to collect samples for laboratory analysis at ODU and VIMS. In the event of a Pfiesteria-related event, the information would then go to the health department for the State Health Commissioner to determine if public advisories or closures would be needed. According to Frank L. Daniel, Director of DEQ’s Tidewater regional office, "Our agency has already begun to sample Virginia waters as part of an on-going Pfiesteria monitoring program."

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is responsible for enforcing any closures that become necessary. "VMRC patrols would work on a 24-hour basis to ensure that the closure is enforced," said Robert L. O’Reilly, Assistant Chief of the Fisheries Management Division, Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "We also would ensure that users of the waterway don’t interfere with the activities that must be undertaken regarding the appropriate testing and subsequent evaluation of the marine resources involved," O’Reilly said.

Virginia’s Pfiesteria Task Force maintains communication among state agencies and other federal agencies. The task force also assists in planning state responses to fish kills or water advisories. Member agencies include the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which collects water and sediment samples and responds to any fish kill; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which collects finfish samples to look for lesions; the Virginia Department of Health, which issues any health advisories or public information, manages a federally funded study of human health effects in conjunction with VCU and collects water and sediment samples through Shellfish Sanitation; and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which patrols the waterways to enforce any health advisories and serves as chair of the task force.  


Note: Other telephone numbers may be of interest to the public. To report a sizeable fish kill, call the Tidewater Regional Office of the Department of Environmental Quality at (757) 518-2000. To report a large quantity of fish with lesions or sores, call the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (804) 684-7000.

Last Updated: 03-29-2013

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