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Convocation Sept. 7 Features NCSU Scientist

BOONE–JoAnn M. Burkholder helped discover a toxic marine organism in 1991 that has caused increasing concern for many who fish and vacation along the state’s coastal waters.

It also set up a tug-of-war between science and politics.Burkholder, professor of aquatic botany and marine sciences at North Carolina State University, and other researchers discovered Pfiesteria piscicida, an organism that has been tied to fish kills in some North Carolina and Maryland estuaries, and in coastal rivers from Delaware to Alabama.

Burkholder, whose early research on Pfiesteria is recounted in Rodney Barker’s book “And the Waters Turned to Blood,” will speak at Appalachian State University’s Convocation Sept. 7. The ceremony begins at 10 a.m. in Varsity Gym.

Incoming freshmen have read the book as part of the university’s summer reading program.

Scientists speculate that the Pfiesteria organism probably existed for thousands of years. Run-off of fertilizer and human and hog waste into slow moving waters, however, has created a nutrient-overloaded environment in which Pfiesteria thrives and becomes deadly to fish.

Pfiesteria also causes open sores on fish such as Atlantic menhaden, a common species of fish found in the Neuse Estuary.

In humans, it can cause neurological disorders. While studying the organism, Burkholder and other researchers in several laboratories were poisoned by the organism’s toxins and suffered memory loss, disorientation, mood swings and impaired immune systems.

Pfiesteria’s toxic stages generally are active only between April and October. Burkholder and other scientists monitor a variety of conditions at 40 sites in the Neuse Estuary, and in other coastal waters, looking for early warning signs of a possible toxic Pfiesteria outbreak. They analyze water flow, oxygen, saline and nutrient levels, turbidity, Pfiesteria, and other factors that can create an unfavorable environment for fish.

Burkholder and other scientists recently confirmed the existence of a second toxic Pfiesteria species, which is being formally named Pfiesteria shumwayae sp. nov.

It was first detected in 1995 at a fish kill following a major spill from a hog waste lagoon in the New River Estuary, and has since been verified in potentially toxic forms from Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

Burkholder expects that as research continues, a dozen or more Pfiesteria species will be identified.

“We’ve made progress in our research, but there’s still a lot to learn about the toxic Pfiesteria complex as well as other factors that can compromise fish health,” Burkholder said prior to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “We plan to continue to press forward with Pfiesteria research, and with related studies on water pollution. The threats to fish and related threats to human health from poor water quality will not go away just because we want them to.

In my view, it’s important for all of us to help to reduce pollution stresses on our rivers and estuaries.”

Despite her findings and their cross-confirmation by colleagues in independent laboratories, officials involved with environmental policy making generally have been slow to act. “The scientific links between fish kills and nutrient pollution are established, and in some of our nation’s most important estuaries, involvement of toxic Pfiesteria in major fish kills has been verified. Yet in some of the areas hardest hit by Pfiesteria, resource managers, and certain politicians and industry leaders who strongly influence them, have refused to recognize those linkages.

More fundamentally in some cases, they have been slow to acknowledge that nutrient pollution can promote fish kills,” she says. “It’s clearly been a case of science being held hostage by economic fears and political interests. Our rivers and estuaries are in decline, and Nero is fiddling.”

Burkholder has testified on Pfiesteria and related organisms before U.S. Congressional hearings. She has received the AAAS’s Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award and the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award in Science.


NCSU News Services contributed to this article.