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Maryland, USA


Jack Howard, fisherman:

I've been a commercial fisherman most of my life. And we noticed we had a lot of fishes with lesions and sores on them. Some of them had portions of the top of their heads eaten down to their skulls, to their eyes, and they had basically parts of their bodies just completely eaten away like acid.

And we started get sick ourselves and the symptoms we had was diarrhea, memory loss and it got to the point that we were so sick sometimes, and the stomach cramps were so violent that you... you just couldn't do anything.

Robert Daniels, oysterman:

I'm not optimistic about the future because, number one, the decline in crabs, and the number two, some kind of disease that gets into our oysters and I don't know. When it hits an oyster bed, it seems like every oyster on the oyster bed dies.

Robert Hambleton, oysterman:

It's bad right now. About all of our rivers have this disease in them and it's killing them. And a lot of places are a lot worse than this; some places they're a 100-percent dead. But hopefully, we've got to look around 'till we find a place we can make some kind of a day's work - make some kind of living. It doesn't look like very much of a future unless they stop dying - in this business.

Kellogg Schwab, Johns Hopkins University:

There's a lot of nutrient load coming from farmlands. There are a lot of microbiological issues coming from human waste. We have leaking sewer lines that are contaminating the Bay with human waste that causes potentially outbreaks of human pathogens.

Vicki Blazer, U.S. Geological Survey:

What we now know is that those open lesions are caused by a fungus, not by Pfiesteria. What we don't know what relationship Pfiesteria and the fungus have to each other. For instance, some people have suggested that Pfiesteria toxin damages the skin and allows the fungal agent to get in and cause those lesions.

We don't know exactly where the fungus comes from, but we're pretty sure it is a terrestrial source, so runoff an important factor, and we need to understand where does it comes from.

The Chesapeake Bay is North America's largest estuary. With over 11,000 miles of shoreline and fed by 48 major rivers, it supports nearly 300 species of fish. The people of Crisfield, Maryland have been working the bay for over three hundred years.

Crisfield, Maryland

Crisfield, Maryland

Not very long ago this small fishing village of 3,000 boasted the largest registry of sailing vessels in the United States. This was once home to over 150 oyster processing plants. Today Crisfield's watermen are suffering a serious decline in their catch. The bay is showing the affects of sewage, pesticides and industrial effluents that have been seeping into the Chesapeake for decades. It's the end of the crabbing season and the time to pull in their traps for the winter.

Several years ago watermen like Jack Howard began to notice grotesque lesions in the fish and crabs they were catching. There was worse to come.

Oysterman have seen their livelihood eroded year by year. Several years ago watermen like Jack Howard began to notice grotesque lesions in the fish and crabs they were catching. There was worse to come. Not long after the fish started getting sick so did the watermen.

As more and more watermen became sick, the alarm bells sounded. That's when scientists suspected that human impacts on the bay were the reason fish and watermen were getting ill.

diseased fish

Diseased fish

The first suspect was a toxic algae called Pfiesteria. Further research showed that the problem was much more complex. Many microorganisms were involved, not just Pfiesteria.

Today research continues but the fish are still dying and the watermen of Crisfield continue to suffer. And just as the invasion of West Nile virus has raised the alarm in the richer countries of the world about the threat of new insect-born diseases, the still puzzling sickness of the Chesapeake is just one more warning about the growing problem of waterborne diseases. Fortunately, there are programs that are beginning to offer glimmers of hope in solving public health problems like Crisfield's.



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