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Happened to


How Many People Got Sick?

Does Pfiesteria Produce a Toxin?

Was There Another Fish Killer?

The Copper Connection

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This Issue's Videos:
How Did a Media Storm Get Started?
The Frenzy over Pfiesteria

By Michael W. Fincham

Brad Bell had covered environmental stories all over the state of Maryland for years, but he'd never heard of Shelltown.

A reporter with WJLA-TV, Bell was on the road out of Washington in early May 1997, off to report on rumors of sick fish in a faraway river on the other side of the Bay. Pulling out his map he found Shelltown perched on the bottom edge of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the last stop on a thin blue highway that dead-ended on the lower stretches of the Pocomoke River. It was about as far south as you could drive and still be in Maryland.

Heading across the Bay Bridge, Bell got a call back from a spokesperson at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). According to Bell, the DNR message was "Now Brad, as you do this story, don't go saying that it's Pfiesteria. We don't want any public panic."

Washington Post headlines Summer and Fall 1997
Baltimore Sun headlines Summer and Fall 1997
Newspapers went to war over the Pfiesteria story in 1997 when watermen like Jack Howard (first photograph, below) said Pfiesteria piscicida could be causing sick fish and the media responded with TV and newspaper reports. Glenn Morris (fourth photograph below) led a medical team, including Lynn Grattan (fifth photograph below) that tested state workers and watermen for memory loss. Scientists like Ernest Brown (last photograph below) began using a DNA probe to find Pfiesteria all over the Bay. Photographs by Michael W. Fincham, except the second one below, which is by Joann Burkholder.
Jack Howard hauling in a net by Michael W. Fincham
Pfisteria micrograph by Joann Burkholder

That warning, a DNR official later admitted, was "like waving a red flag in front of a bull." Bell is blond-haired, self-confident to the edge of cocky, and blessed with the kind of strong mid-range baritone that punches across well on television. He resented the "lecture," he admits, and became immediately suspicious that "they (DNR) really didn't want to find out what was going on."

One hundred fifty miles from Washington, Bell found himself driving two-lane blacktops that wound past white churches with country graveyards, open fields with rows of corn and tomatoes, and small farms with long, pencil-straight chicken sheds.

Shelltown itself, he found, was a scattering of houses just past the last bend in the Pocomoke River. One public dock, one boat ramp, and one short sand beach. Across the river was Virginia.

At the end of a long gravel drive, there was also one commercial fishing harbor and several angry watermen. Brad Bell had found the story that would put Shelltown on the national media map. Not just Shelltown, but the whole state and the entire Chesapeake Bay.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the summer of 1997, the summer of Pfiesteria, when a tiny microbe became big news, first in the Chesapeake region and then around the world. If you remember Pfiesteria. at all, you probably remember reading news stories of wounded fish attacked by a mysterious microbe, a dinoflagellate that seemed to be releasing a toxin in the water. Or you remember watching television footage of dead, dying, or dazed fish floating in rivers like the Pocomoke, the Manokin, the Nanticoke, and the Chicamacomico. You knew those were rivers in the Chesapeake, but faraway rivers way down in the distant soggy southern reaches of the lower Eastern Shore. You probably stopped buying fish.

How did Pfiesteria piscicida, a single-celled organism, become the center of a media blitz, the magnet that would draw dozens, if not hundreds of reporters to this tiny riverside harbor and drive them to churn out thousands of stories over the next year? In hindsight, it's clear those stories, through their sheer volume, exaggerated the risk posed to fish, people, and the environment. They led to mass panic and major economic loss.

Here's one hypothesis about how that frenzy fired up, call it the conspiracy hypothesis. It's one of several, culled from interviews with reporters, state officials, and scientists who survived the storm over Pfiesteria. Together they may explain how Pfiesteria piscicida invaded your living room ten years ago. And how it could do so again.

At least since Watergate, a hint of conspiracy has been a red flag for most contemporary reporters. In 1997, Tim Wheeler at The Baltimore Sun was talking to watermen and to DNR officials and hearing different stories, and so was Todd Shields at The Washington Post. Watermen were saying Pfiesteria could be causing sick fish while DNR officials were saying they had no evidence the dinoflagellate was even in the river. They told Wheeler what they told Bell. "We are ninety-nine percent sure that it's not Pfiesteria. Be careful what you say."

When Brad Bell arrived in Shelltown in May of 1997, he talked to watermen, and more importantly his cameraman took footage of sick fish with red lesions. Some had tails eaten away as if doused in battery acid. While the words of state officials were reassuring, the images of sick fish were disturbing. Bell had never seen fish looking like that. Nor had the viewers who saw them on Washington television that evening.

When he saw the viewer response to his sick fish story, Bell decided to follow the Pfiesteria trail. Maryland officials were sending their water samples to Florida for analysis by Karen Steidinger, one of the co-discoverers of the dinoflagellate, but Bell decided to get a second opinion. He turned to the other co-discoverer, JoAnn Burkholder, a controversial scientist who had blamed Pfiesteria for killing millions of fish in North Carolina rivers — and then accused state officials of ignoring the problem.

In an act of pure enterprise reporting, Bell headed back to the Pocomoke, filled an empty Evian bottle with water from a fish pound, then drove down Interstate 95, and delivered his sample personally to Burkholder's lab in North Carolina. Peering through a light microscope, Burkholder told Bell that the water held cells that looked like Pfiesteria. A detailed analysis, including fish bioassays and electron-scanning microscopes, would take a couple weeks, but Bell was not waiting. His report aired that evening.

"It was a breakthrough story," said Wheeler, and it ramped up the conspiracy dynamic. Scooped by Bell, reporters began to dig harder, suspecting a reluctance to reveal bad news about Pfiesteria. Now they were hearing yes, there is Pfiesteria in the river — but no, it's not connected to the sick fish in the river. More reporters began making the long drive to Shelltown where they heard watermen accuse the state of a coverup.

Here's where the conspiracy hypothesis breaks down, however. Maryland state agencies, in contrast to the Nixon administration, never mounted much of a coverup operation. As more media reports began appearing, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment moved quickly towards complete transparency. They set up an interagency task force, put one person, Rob Magnien, in charge of coordinating the state's investigation and began responding quickly to all press inquiries.

Transparency, ironically enough, had its drawbacks — especially when there were so many questions about Pfiesteria and not very many answers. State officials were releasing information immediately, even when they didn't know what it meant. "We were scratching our heads," explains Rob Magnien, who had reporters asking questions every day. "We were just sitting there with a bunch of questions, some data, some conflicting opinions," he says. Transparency increased the flow of information through the media, but in the end, it also fed the public panic. The message that came through went something like this: state officials had no clear explanation for what was causing so many sick fish.

Then there's the media war hypothesis. Who was at war? Newspapers with other newspapers. Television stations with other television stations.

"The Pfiesteria story was a huge, competitive news story," explained Wheeler. "It was probably the biggest environmental story we had here. There was a daily drum beat of news coverage. Our major competitor down the road, The Washington Post, jumped on and went after it in a big way. So we were in a big horserace."

The Washington Post, the other big horse in the race, competes with The Baltimore Sun on many Maryland issues, and they took notice of The Sun's heavy coverage. "We read their paper, they read our paper," said Peter Goodman, a Post reporter. "They took the story very seriously. It was a front page story in The Sun seemingly every day throughout the summer." A slow news season suddenly had a hot story line.

The horserace unleashed another dynamic, a media feedback loop that became a sort of perpetual motion machine. When The Post saw The Sun giving the story heavy coverage, The Post then gave the story heavy coverage, and when The Sun saw that, they stepped up their coverage again. Over one year The Sun assigned 21 reporters to the story, and The Post assigned 24. "There was intense pressure for stories," said Doug Birch, a science writer with The Sun. "We had big-league competition. We wanted to shine."

And shine they did. Over a year, The Post published some 130 stories focused on Pfiesteria, but The Sun won, pulling away down the stretch and publishing over 170 stories. "We certainly wrote more than they did," said Wheeler, "by yards of newsprint."

The newspaper war had another unexpected effect. The Post is both a local and a national newspaper, somewhat like The New York Times, The L.A. Times or USA Today. When The Post kept running stories, hoping to keep up with The Sun, they also drew in the national networks. Pfiesteria the dinoflagellate made its debut on ABC, NBC, and CBS. "The story just grows and grows," said Goodman. "That's what happened here."

Ironically newspaper reporters never saw themselves competing with television reporters. "I like having TV on the scene because it boosts the story," said Todd Shields of The Post. "And if the story is on television, then Gee Whiz, your editor is likely to think it's a major story." As any newspaper reader knows, television news often follows the lead of newspapers. So television was feeding newspapers and newspapers were feeding television. The feedback loop got stronger and faster.

Television, however, does something newspapers don't. "Television is the medium that can terrify people more than print ever can," said Goodman of The Post. "Qualifiers tend to get blown away by the sheer power of the medium." Reporters and scientists kept saying that seafood is safe to eat, but daily images of fish with red lesions sent consumers fleeing from the fish markets.

The media war idea, like most hypotheses, has its limits. It explains much — but not everything — about the media frenzy and the panic it produced. Newspapers and television stations, after all, are always competing with each other on big stories. What was it about Pfiesteria that made it such a huge story?

Anthropologists think they know. They've weighed in with a different kind of hypothesis, but they don't, unfortunately, have a catchy name for it. They call it the "cultural model" hypothesis. That seems to translate into Pfiesteria-as-symbol-of-things-that-scare-us.

The summer of Pfiesteria began with sick fish, but it was sick people that made Pfiesteria world famous, sick people with strange symptoms. That's when the story got scary. A medical team announced that 13 people, mostly watermen and state workers, now had mental problems, problems like confusion and short-term memory loss, presumably from working around waters with Pfiesteria lurking below. At that point press coverage exploded again. And so did readership. Not because 13 people were afflicted — that's not a large number — but because those findings tapped into some large fears.

Call it the Jaws factor. Anthropologist Michael Paolisso does. "I think it's real scary to imagine something in the water," says the University of Maryland researcher, "something down there that could come up out of the water and get you." Pfiesteria, of course, was only a tiny dinoflagellate, not a great white shark looking for white people to eat off the shores of Martha's Vineyard. But Pfiesteria — like the movie shark — was hard to find, it seemed to appear and disappear at will, and it was widely described as an "ambush predator."

The Jaws factor is a good way to get a handle on the concept of "cultural models." According to anthropologists, we carry around ideas, frameworks, and mental models that help us make sense of the world, especially the scary parts of the world. "Predator" is one of those ideas that we use when we think about sharks, grizzlies, wolves, and other animals that sometimes eat people or their pets. "Cultural models" come, in part, from the culture we live in. Think of monster movies, Stephen King novels, doomsday dramas. Think of the energy jolts they give us.

What models were the media tapping into with their Pfiesteria stories? According to a survey by two other academics at the University of Delaware, Willett Kempton and James Falk, when people read about Pfiesteria, they pulled up five ideas: pollutant, poison, disease, parasite, or predator. None of these sound benign, but some (pollution, poison, predator) sound fairly scary. When press stories described Pfiesteria as "phantom-like," "a fish killer," "an ambush predator," and "the cell from hell," they were activating some high-energy ideas bouncing around in the back of our brains.

The sick fish story became a sick people story, and then like the cell from hell, it began to morph again into other shapes. When Pfiesteria blooms were blamed on chicken waste running off farms, a sick people story became a sick environment story. When legislators began holding hearings on new regulations for farming, a sick environment story became a political story. The story had to keep moving or it would die. And all these story lines unleashed jolts of fear, anger, and political action.

It was the story that wouldn't stop. Newspapers assigned science writers, environmental writers, agricultural writers, and political writers. Television stations ran pictures of pretty rivers, angry watermen, and ugly fish. Newspapers sent more writers. "Here were all these things coming together," said Rob Magnien, the DNR official who had to deal with the press on a daily basis. "Talk about a perfect storm."

In the eye of the storm, however, sat a tiny, one-celled organism, Pfiesteria piscicida, one species among more than 1,000 dinoflagellate species. Now through the media frenzy it had somehow morphed into something larger. "I always thought Pfiesteria was more of a cultural organism than a biological one," says Paolisso. In the end it evolved into a powerful symbol of nature gone awry, of nature striking back at us — like an old movie monster lashing out against the mess that men have made of the natural world.

The storm passed. Watermen went back to work. And the media moved on, leaving scientists to wage their wars about Pfiesteria in the pages of technical journals. But the memories linger. The old movies, after the monster died, always left a question hanging in the mind. Could Jaws or Frankenstein or Godzilla come back again someday?

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