Natural Resources Protective Association: Protecting the marine environment since 1977

Pfiesteria Piscicida

Winner: Story Of The Year 1997, Writer Of The Year 1997, Best Investigated Story 1997 – New York Press Association

Written by: Mr. Kerry Sullivan

For: The Staten Island Register

April 29, 1997 – Vol. 30 No. 1549

Deadly Tide Could Threaten Island

Life Form Is Toxic To Fish and Humans


One foggy morning in 1991 Dr. JoAnn M. Burkholder, a biologist from North Carolina State University got behind the wheel of Her car. Her destination was eastward, following North Carolina Sate Road #70 along the Neuse River toward the small fishing town of Beaufort and the Neuse River estuary.

There were reports of a huge fish kill coming back to the university from fishermen along the river and the Pamlico Sound, Millions of fish were washing up on the shores of the states pristine bays. Most were covered with bleeding sores.

Burkholder stopped for coffee outside of Kingston where State Road #70 crossed the Neuse River. She peered out into the fog. She was one of the few people in the world that actually knew what was happening in the state, and she also knew it was unstoppable.

A monster from the deep had found a home in the bays and estuaries of North Carolina. It was deadly.

It was a shape shifter, being able to change in a microsecond to any of 24 different forms that Dr. Burkholder knew about so far, and in 11 of those forms, it emitted a toxin so deadly that it paralyzed its prey in seconds, inserting its tongue in to its prey and eating from the inside out.

No Science Fiction

This might sound like the plot of a science fiction novel or a movie, but it isn’t. Dr. JoAnn Burkholder is real, and so is Pfiesteria Piscicida. It was identified by Burkholder in 1988, and its name means “fish killer” in Latin.

But what Burkholder found out after she had named this form of algae was far more frightening. She discovered that it was deadly to humans, too. And right now its spreading up and down the Atlantic Coast-potentially headed to waters near you.

What is even worse is that the state governments of North and South Carolina don’t want you to know about it!

Burkholder found Pfiesteria Piscicida nine years ago, in 1988, in the fish tanks of two researchers at North Carolina State who had noticed that something was killing the specimens in their tanks, even after researchers and bought new fish, and changed the water.

The dead fish were covered in sores and ulcers, and large parts around their anuses had been eaten away. Drs Edward Noga and Stephen Smith had called in Burkholder, a fresh water botanist, to help solve the mysteries surrounding the deaths of the fishes- when they removed the dead fishes, the algae the suspected of being the culprit also disappeared .

What the researchers finally discovered was a life form so deadly that it’s hard to imagine all of its capabilities.

Pfiesteria Piscicida

Pfiesteria Piscicida is a dinoflagellate, a one-celled organism that is both a plant and an animal. It can photosynthesize sunlight for energy, or it can eat meat! It can survive for years without food, and it can metamorphose in to 24 different known life forms!

When Burkholder examined the fish tanks, she found a number of tiny cysts in the sediment at the bottom of the tank that looked harmless. But, when she added fish to the tank, a transformation took place in a matter of minutes.

The cyst erupted into what the researcher now calls “toxic flagellated vegetative cells” which propel themselves at the fish that were added to the tank, attacking them with a powerful toxin, stunning them and causing the fish to become disorientated and ultimately die.

After the fish died, the algae went through yet another transformation, this time into large amoebae, and began to eat the carcasses of the fish, all the time continuing to photosynthesize like plants, using chloroplasts they had “stolen” from other species of plants they had eaten earlier. After they had eaten their fill, they reproduced, returned to the cyst form, and settled back in to the sediment on the bottom of the tank, waiting for their next victims.

Deadly Cover-Up

This monumental find was to be kept quiet by four states for the next 8 years…..

North Carolina called the large Neuse River fish kill in 1991 a “red tide”, knowing that it was Pfiesteria Piscicida. But what is usually a “red tide” is caused by single-cell flagellate which releases a toxin that kills fish, it doesn’t eat them!

A clam or a mussel which eats from a “red tide” bloom won’t die, but it will store the toxin. Which of course may also be lethal to humans should they eat one.

But a dinoflagellate like Pfiesteria Piscicida eats meat. Secrets nerve toxins, and can even be deadly to humans…. In fact, just the fumes from the toxin overtook Dr. Burkholder. One day early in her research Dr. Burkholder was pouring the algae into a flask, when she became disorientated and began to suffer from stomach cramps, and then underwent an asthma attack. Her eyes became so bloodshot that for a few hours she could barely see, and she lost her short tem memory for eight days.

The research was moved to a secure room, or a supposedly secure room, but the life form managed to leak out. Dr. Howard Glasgow took in large amounts of the toxin from the air. He suffered mood swings, vomiting, immune system weakness and memory loss and had to be hospitalized. And, while writing this article, I’ve learned of commercial fishermen and divers in the Carolinas and Virginia who have oozing sores on their faces and bodies.

Possibly In Our Area

The most frightening part is that I’ve also learned of some fish caught in our area on hook and line that were alive, but were being eaten by a mysterious parasite. One of these specimens was taken to the National Marine Fisheries laboratory at Sandy Hook, and we are awaiting the results of tests there.

This algae has been found recently in waters from Florida to Delaware, but the federal government says it doesn’t to study the causes and effects of Red Tides until next year.

What Drs. Burkholder and Glasgow have learned is that Pfiesteria Piscicida is a very capable predator. It lies in wait on river bottoms until a school of oily fish like Menhaden (Moss Bunker) swim by. The algae then pick up what is apparently an unknown chemical signal, much like a shark is attracted to blood.

It then transforms itself into a round zoospore (a basketball-shaped creature) and attacks in such a feeding frenzy that it turns the water red from the blood of its victims. “It’s gruesome” said Glasgow. Zoospores can also change shapes very quickly and are “ferocious eaters” he added quickly.

From Pollution?

Where did this monster from the deep come from? Pollution so far is the number one guess as to its source, and that may come from North Carolina pig and mining industries.

In the last seven years the pig industry of North Carolina has become the second largest in the nation. The state also leads the nation in the amount of toxic material it allows to be dumped into its bays and estuaries, It is among the lowest five states in the amount of money spent on environmental programs.

Phosphate mining is BIG business in North Carolina, too. The pig industry pumps billions of gallons of “swine sewage” into waterways; The phosphate industry pumps nutrient-rich effluents into the waters surrounding the state.

All plants live on phosphates. Pfiesteria is a plant, as well as an animal. It apparently survives in the sediment of the bays for years, living off nutrient-rich sediment, until fish swim by.

Last year, during heavy rains in July, the runoff from the North Carolina hog industry swelled. In one instance 25 million gallons of “swine sewage” was lost into the Neuse River. Within the first week, thousand of fish began to die.

In four months 11 million fish had been killed, and people along the river were complaining of festering sores, weight loss and stomach cramps. There in the water Dr. Burkholder found exactly what she was had expected – Pfiesteria Piscicida.

With Burkholder’s findings now impossible to ignore, and a snooping reporter from New York. The state of North Carolina closed a 17 mile section of the Neuse River, and knowledge of the algae finally started to leak out to the Public. But not before a local county commissioner asked for state officials to “silence’ Burkholder and her team, adding that he’s like to “take a rubber hose to the reporter from New York”.

Slow Reaction

The fear, of course, was for the future of the state’s lucrative pig industry. And so the reaction to the potential nightmare presented by this creature has been slow.

The U.S. Department Of defense has sent biological warfare experts to do research which is still going on. The University now rates Dr. Burkholder’s work as level 3 bio-hazard research, comparable to AID’s and above Rabies. Some state funding is now starting to tickle down to her and her team.

But the fact is that the economies of the states involved- the Carolina’s, Virginia and Maryland – rely heavily on the seafood and shore tourism industries, two areas that could be very adversely impacted by the threat of Pfiesteria Piscicida. So could the mining and pig industries.

Donald Andersen, the chief scientist at the famed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, puts the controversy this way: “The number of events, and the economic impacts have increased. What became controversial is whether this is a global epidemic or some fundamental change in coastal ecosystems.”

Even as the North Carolina state government denies that Pfiesteria Piscicida is a significant problem, Dr. Chris Delaney of New Bern, N.C. continues to treat patients wounded by this organism and as Rodney Barker author of a book about Red Tides called “And The Waters Turned To Blood” speculates, research goes on at North Carolina State University…. Woods Hole, Duke University and the Dept. of Defense continue research also.

Now I sit and wait for the first confirmed report of it in our area as the waters warm as the menhaden start their annual return, will they bring it here with them? Will we see a striped bass kill like they did in Pamlico Sound last year? Will the ocean spray become toxic to humans? This organism has been known for nine years, but only a few have known of it, or questioned it, Isn’t it time local environmental agencies went on the alert to the deadly possibilities that could await us.

Copyright 1997


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Environmental Disaster

The article on this page by Register outdoor columnist Kerry Sullivan may sound like the stuff of supermarket tabloids, but it’s true and frightening.

With the deadly Pfiesteria Piscicida life form already infesting waters from Florida to Delaware, presenting a toxic threat not only to fish, but to humans as well, its time for our own environmental agencies to swing in to action.

Before we see the kind of fish kills, and health effects on humans that have already occurred in the waters of North Carolina and other states arriving here on Staten Island with the warming of our waters and the migration of fish from the south.

We call on the state’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation, the City’s Dept. of Environmental Protection, and local offices of the Environmental Protection Administration, as well as other agencies like the Interstate Sanitation Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Administration and local environmental organizations to establish contact with those laboratories and agencies already tackling this problem further down the coast.

It would ironic if, indeed, such virulent organisms represent a reaction by nature to the polluting habits of humans. But, whatever their cause, these creatures that can metamorphose into at least 24 different forms, and which scientist describe as “ferocious predators” represent a real threat to our waters and to ourselves.

It isn’t often that we get advance warning of a potential environmental disaster. Lets take advantage of the time we have.

Bill Franz, Editor

S.I. Register