JoAnn Burkholder, Professor and Pew Fellow North Carolina State University, 9 July 1998
Written Testimony on S.B. 1222 - Senate Committee on Environment & Public Worm

A Former Marine Fisheries Commissioner's Perspective

Salt marshes, underwater grasslike meadows filled with shellfish. mangrove forests, and quiet, open waters with rich fisheries are what come to mind for people when they consider estuaries, the natural areas where rivers meet the sea. But the reality of this view has rapidly changed in the past several decades. Different scenes now inundate us with the "signs of the times" .. of elderly folk's remembrances of times when a rowboat filled with fish could be taken within an hour, in areas where fish are now rare; of commercial fishermen who acknowledge overfishing pressures involved with fish declines, but who seem to have no voice when they question why their fish nursery grounds have received another sewage outfall, of why yet another coastal river that was classified as an "outstanding resource" has been destroyed by the newest subdivision. As Chair of the Habitat & Water Quality Committee on North Carolina's Marine Fisheries Commission, I had no answer for them because in that state, and many others, fisheries are managed "separately" from water quality issues, and the respective commissions that governed these issues had not once met in the decades since they had been formed.\1\

The overall economic value of our estuaries is significantly underestimated because estuaries provide many "intangible" services, as well as tangible goods such as seafood.... One acre of tidal estuary has been calculated to equate the operation of a. $115,000 waste treatment plant (1984 figure, consumer price index 103.9; adjusted for 1997, CPI 160.6; increase of 54.6% - Dr. J. Foley, natural resource economist, Norm Carolina State University) in pollutant filtering/removal capabilities.\2\ The total land value, alone, of estuarine habitat has been estimated at about $128,000 per acre when fish production is factored into consideration. By comparison, 1 acre of prime farmland in Kansas was valued at $1,800 with an annual production value of $900.\2\ Estuaries are also among the most productive ecosystems in the world. U.S. estuaries and coastal wetlands provide spawning grounds for 70% of our seafood including shrimp, salmon, oysters, clams and haddock, with associated jobs for millions of people. \2\

In their position along the land-water margin of our coastal zones, estuaries are known to be highly vulnerable to human pressures. Estuaries receive most of the excessive loadings of pollutants that reach marine environments.\3\ As a result, these waters and the fish and waterfowl that directly depend on then have been seriously impacted by sediment erosion from adjacent land development; microbial pathogens from septic leachfields, urban runoff and land disturbance; excessive nutrients from untreated or poorly treated sewage; oil spills from common boating practices as well as major incidents; pesticides from cropland and lawn runoff, and other stressors.\4\ These impacts are exacerbated by often-dramatic changes in hydrology within the watersheds that estuaries ultimately service. Extensive (among and channelization of freshwater rivers completely altered the natural salt balance Us many estuaries, as well as the volume of water supplied.\5\ Ditching and filling in of salt marshes and other wetlands in estuarine ecosystems move pollutants into receiving rivers quickly and directly.\1\ Pollutant loadings are on the increase in many coastal areas of our country,\2\ coinciding with exponential human population growth and associated loss of the wetlands which acted as a filter to protect the rivers that drain them.\6\ Over half of the worldly population already live within a 100-mile radius of a coastline, a pattern that includes our country. \6\ More than half of our coastal habitats have been destroyed or damaged by dredge/filling and by waste contamination, including many of the sea-grass beds that are vital habitat for commercially important finfish and shellfish.\2\ \7\ A steadily increasing proportion of our coastal wetlands and adjacent creeks that provide vitally important habitat for our shell fisheries have disappeared as coastlands are developed. Many of those that remain look healthy.. .but then, one rices the posted signs that prohibit fishing for Oysters or clams because the shellfish have filtered out too many pollutants from adjacent lands, and would no longer be safe for human consumption. Overall across the nation' only about half of our shellfish waters are now ''clean" enough to produce edible seafood.

These are the overt, easily noticed "signs of the times." But other, more subtle human influencing on estuaries will likely prove much more serious in the near future, unless we support measures such as S. 1222, in order to better equip ourselves to combat them. Scientists understand acute or obvious, severe impacts of pollutants on fish and other wildlife supported by estuaries. By contrast, little is known about the chronic or sublethal impacts of many of our actions on fisheries and other important estuarine, resources. Repeated research on all coasts of our country has shown that fish from waters near major human population centers have suppressed immune systems, higher incidence of bleeding sores, gonadal tumors and other diseases, and other serious health impairment relative to fish in cleaner waters.. Physiological stress in fish that lead to decreased growth, reproduction, survival of young, and long-term survival of adults has been demonstrated from small amounts of pollutant such 49 pesticides, petroleum compounds, and trace metals, over longer time internals.

Such toxic substances (as caustic chemicals) would be expected to cause adverse impacts. However, even the effects of more pollutants that are regarded as relatively "benign," such as nutrient over-enrichment - especially of nitrogen and phosphorus, the same kinds of nutrients that would be used to fertilize house plants - are proving to be much more serious than had previously been suspected. The foundation of the food web in aquatic ecosystems is algae. These plants are open microscopic, and they have enormous surface area relative to their small size. Bathed in their water environment, algae have easy access to dissolved nutrients. They can be stimulated by extremely small levels of nutrient supplies, micro-quantities in comparison to how we typically think about in adding nutrients, which is by the pound (for lawn fertilizer) or the ton (for our crops) Thus, aquatic ecosystems are highly sensitive to nutrient loading, and too many nutrients often translates into noxious blooms of algae as estuaries are shifted out of their natural balance. Although algae are generally good for estuaries, nutrient over-enrichment from sewage, cropland runoff, lawn runoff, animal wastes, and other sources can stimulate too much algal growth. At night the respiration of these small plants - millions of which can be contained in a few drops of water - can rob the oxygen from the water and cause fish kills. Such conditions increasingly characterize many of our estuaries. This description is especially true of many quiet lagoons or upper embayments with poor water exchange/renewal, where nutrients have time to stimulate substantial algal growth before they are flushed from the system. Too many algae can block light from reaching beneficial underwater seagrass meadow habitat for our fisheries. Without enough light, the seagrass meadows disappear, ant such habitat loss has been strongly correlated with devastating declines in commercial fisheries.\7\

The proliferation of algal overgrowth that shade out and destroy seagrass beds is an obvious impact of nutrient over-enrichment. However, the following two examples illustrate other more subtle but serious impacts of chronic nutrient enrichment on aquatic ecosystems. In the first case, recent research has demonstrated a more subtle impact of nitrate loading on the most important seagrass habitat species on the north temperate coasts of the U.S., namely eelgrass or Zostera marina. Very small amounts of nitrate loading to the overlying water, given daily for several weeks can cause these plants to die as a direct toxic effect, unrelated to algal overgrowth.\7\ Zostera is highly sensitive to nitrate loading (e.g. from septic effluent leachate) because, surprisingly, it has no way to stop nitrate uptake through its leaves, For thousands of years, historically this plant was accustomed to nitrogen-depauperate coastal waters. The ability to take up nitrate, day or night, through the plant leaves -- nitrate from storm runoff or other sudden, unexpected source -- may once have represented a great advantage in nitrogen-limited waters over other plants that generally cannot Me up nitrate in darkness. However, with increased coastal nitrate loading from human activities, our most important north temperate seagrass now appears to be seriously disadvantaged because of this "strategy" to take up nitrate at all costs, whenever it is available in the water. The excessive nitrate uptake is rather analogous "too much candy"-- it is not good for these plants. It forces Zostera to direct most of its energy and other nutrient supplies, such as carbon, into amino acid production, even when it does not need the amino acids. Thus, too much nitrate -- at concentrations that would be regarded as very low, relative to current conditions in many estuaries that drain increasingly urbanized watersheds -- drives Zostera into severe internal imbalances in other nutrients, which can lead to death. This phenomenon was first reported in 1992. The full extent of damage to eelgrass meadow habitat from chronic exposure to elevated water- column nitrate has only begun to be examined.\7\

A second compelling example of subtle but serious impacts of nutrient (both phosphorus and nitrogen) over-enrichment to estuaries clearly has direct implications for human health. In 1991, I led a research team that discovered the toxic dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria pisicida, as a causative agent of massive estuarine fish kills.\9\ At sublethal, chronic levels the toxins a from Pfiesteria can also cause major incidence of fish disease, in which millions of fish can be affected with large open, bleeding sores. The affected fish often die, but more slowly and much less noticeably than would be detected in an obvious, acute kill in which fish accumulated at the water surface. Moreover, chronic exposure to small amounts of Pfiesteria's toxins over days to weeks may cause much more serious problems at the fish population level than an acute fish kill that affects a small number of fish relative to the total population size.\10\ The known range of chronic end sublethal impacts from these toxins on fish, thus far, includes several immune system suppression, unpaired reproduction, significantly depressed survival of the young, destruction of the osmoregulatory system (i.e., fish cannot control their salt balance, which is very serious in the changing salinity environment characteristics of estuaries), and large-scale disease. Such impacts suggest that Pfiesteria's toxins seriously damage the ability of fish to reproduce, and of young as well as adult fish to survive or fight disease.

These impacts of Pfiesteria on fish health -- even the obvious impacts that can be visually observed through major fish kills -- have only been known for less than a decade, because of this organism's rapid "attack/retreat" behavior which made it difficult to detect and track.\9\ Two other important points of information were gained within the past five years, which clearly illustrate that Pfiesteria can be stimulated by human activities, and that chronic or sublethal exposure to Pfiesteria's toxins merit concerted attention and action -~ because these toxins can impair the health of people, as well go fish. First, we determined that Pfiesteria can be strongly stimulated by nutrient over-enrichment from multiple apthropogenic sources such as human sewage, animal wastes, cropland and town fertilizer runoff\10\ \11\ Second, we learned that people who are exposed to toxic cultures of Pfiesteria, or to toxic outbreaks where fish me diseased or dying from Pfiesteria can be seriously hurt just by inhaling the overlying air.\12\ \13\

Production of airborne neurotoxins had not previously been known for toxic dinoflagellates. Before this unusual feature of Pfiesteria was determined, people who worked with dilute toxic cultures Of fish-killing Pfiesteria without protection from airborne toxins sustained a suite of effects.\12\ Short-term impacts (hours) included narcosis, nausea, vomiting, burning eyes and skin, blurred vision, severe stomach cramping and acute respiratory difficulty. Longer-term impacts (weeks to months) included severe headaches, open sores that heal slowly (months) and do not respond to antibiotics, and impairment of all three nervous systems - central, peripheral, and autonomic. Lingering impacts (years) have included easy infections suggestive of a compromised immune system, certain visual impairment, episodes of foggy memory, and peripheral autonomic nervous system dysfunction. The central nervous system impacts to laboratory workers from Pfiesteria's toxins were most striking, and involved severe cognitive impairment and short-term memory loss. Imagine what it is like to appear normal, but to have no idea, of where you are, to be unable to put words into sentences, or to understand English. You have lucid moments in which you are gripped with fear because you realize that something is terribly wrong; then you slide back down. As you begin to recover, you must take reading lessons to be able to read again. Imagine life style changes -- that even after you are able to test normally for learning and memory, you must compensate because you have lost the ability to process information as quickly as you could before the illness occurred, and you do not recover it. Imagine not being able to strenuously exercise because when you try, you develop severe bronchitis or pneumonia. Consider what it would be like to be a fairly young, energetic person who must be on antibiotics more than a third of the year, five years after being affected ...what it would be like to watch as increasingly potent antibiotics do not help you recover from the most recent, nearly constant illness, and to fear the prospect of reaching the point at which the most potent antibiotics no longer can help. The above writing describes the lives of several laboratory workers, ongoing five to seven years following exposure to dilute, field densities of toxic Pfiesteria culture.

The first clinical evaluations of people exposed to small toxic outbreaks of Pfiesteria in estuaries were completed in late summer 1997.\13\ The resulting impact that were documented on learning and memory function were described by health officials as "profound." About 85% of the fishermen who had been in these toxic outbreak areas for 6-8 hours per day, for several weeks or more, tested in the lower 8% of the U.S. population for learning ability and memory, once corrected for age and education and about 75 % of the examined fishermen tested in the lower 2% of the U.S. population in cognitive functioning ability. The documented

impacts were striking even for people with minor exposure - 25 % of the people who were examined after they took a boat ride through a toxic outbreak, or stood on a bridge over an affected area, tested in the lower 8% of the U.S. population in their ability to learn and remember. Most of the affected people had recovered and were able to test. at least, in normal range for cognitive ability and memory function within three months following exposure. However, 20% of the fishermen who had been exposed longest to the toxic outbreaks were unable to test normally until six months after their last exposure. Although they recovered to normal testing range, much of the six-month interval remains "lost" - they have no memory of it, and that period likely will remain lost as it has for the exposed laboratory workers.

Such impacts from Pfiesteria, stemming from nutrient over-enrichment to quiet estuarine waters, were completely unanticipated. Many scientists, having carefully evaluated all of the known information data on Pfiesteria, are now considering a sobering hypothesis, that Pfiesteria represents the first of such "hidden" or previously unknown microbial pathogens to have been discovered as we inadvertently continue, through excessive pollutant loadings, to shift estuaries from their natural balance. As scientists, we may have done the "easy part," that is, we previously recognized aquatic microbes that cause obvious problems for fish or human health, but a new group may be emerging that counts Pfiesteria among its first known representatives. What is clear, at present, is that this example of subtle but serious impacts from water quality degradation in our estuaries unites the issues of estuarine water pollution, fish health, and human health. For the sake of our own health as well as the health of our fisheries, we must move beyond the obvious to gain much sponger appreciation for The subtle but serious impacts of our actions in degrading water quality and otherwise altering estuarine habitats.

Exponential human population growth in many coastlands of our county is projected to continue for at least the next two decades.\2\ Thus, balancing the enormous economic grown along our coastlands with conservation practices -- that is, wise use of our coastal resources -~ is a challenge that is both immediate and pressing. We have not been winning this battle, and we can do much better. S. 1222 represents a major, exciting step toward meeting this challenge

Estuary Restoration: Maximizing Progress

As a scientist who has acted in policy evaluation, in positions shalt were appointed by both republican and democratic governors, I have long considered the question of how to maximize progress in improving the quality of our estuaries. I regard the partnership, cost- sharing approach outlined in S. 1222 as highly constructive in bringing all stakeholders together, from industries and municipalities to individual citizens, in working to achieve this overall goal. Within that context, the suggestions offered here include four major areas of emphasis, and stem from my earlier efforts in contributing to a policy document with similar focus.\1\

Certain efforts are critically needed to maximize progress in restoration of our nation's estuaries. First, we should accelerate river and watershed cleanup through a strong incentive program. This cleanup effort needs to incorporate alternate/improved methods of waste disposal that reduce point source pollutant loadings (e.g., encouragement of adequate methods of land application, plant upgradings to employ biological nutrient removal techniques). Non-point pollution historically has proven much more difficult to control, and a major effort must be undertaken to design incentives programs that work for farmers, municipalities attempting to control urban runoff, and animal production industries, for example. Small-scale contributors, who collectively can become significant, should also be a focus of these programs, such as homeowners or golf course managers who use fertilizers and pesticides in lawn care. Acceleration of river and watershed cleanup, additionally, must involve restructuring hydrologic flow patterns to restore natural flow patterns in watersheds that drain into estuaries. A critical problem facing many coastal areas, and already impinging on estuarine ecosystems, is depletion of coastal aquifers and other water supplies.\5\ Strong water reuse programs are needed as an essential component of estuarine system restoration. Coastal reserves should be expanded to further conserve key environmental habitats such as estuarine fish nurseries.\1\

Secondly, success in the above actions will require additional information/programs including resource inventories where needed at state and local levels, so that baselines can be established where needed and progress can be tracked. Such demonstration of progress will provide, of itself, a strong incentive to foster sometime difficult efforts to achieve continued positive action. Accurate maps of submersed aquatic vegetation, wetlands, shellfish beds, nurseries, spawning grounds, and other habitats vital to our fisheries should be delineated and updated at appropriate intervals.\1\ Programs to strengthen protection at these critical habitats should be strengthened. Attainment of con of the above goals also will require additions answers and information that must be provided by research. Examples of research needs include:

--development/testing of water reuse techniques to maximize effectiveness in specific locations/regions;

--design of techniques and models to improve accuracy ire quantifying the contributions of various pollutant sources;

--development of improved indicators or biosensors of water quality and habitat degradation;

--assessment of the contribution of groundwater to estuarine habitat/water quality degradation;

--design of improved techniques to create value-added products from various waste sources;

--development of improved methods for constructing habitats with adequate functioned value to replace lost natural habitats; also development of improved techniques for restoring functional value to degraded wetlands, seagrass beds, and other vital estuarine habitats for our fisheries; and

--characterization of the full extent of chronic and sublethal impacts from major pollutant loadings on both aquatic communities (especially early life history stages) and the health of people who live and work near the affected estuarine waters.

Lastly, but arguably of greatest importance in information acquisition is the need to support research in natural resource economics, so that the full value of both short-term and the long-term goods (products) services (filtering pollutants, flood control, habitat provision, aesthetics in attracting, tourism, etc.) that are contributed by estuaries can be accurately appraised and imparted to our citizens.

A third major ingredient to maximize progress in restoration of our nation's estuaries will be to promote development of comprehensive environmental education and outreach programs that begin in pre-school, extend to high school and college, and continue to touch all citizens throughout their lives.\9\ Such programs are needed in every state from the heartland to the coasts - for example, a major body of research now indicates that the ca. 700 square- mile zone of low-oxygen that extends out from the Mississippi delta along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana has resulted, in large measure, from pollution carried, from north-central states down the Mississippi River. The receiving estuary is impacted by states far removed from coastal Louisiana, and restoration will not be possible without understanding, cooperation, and assistance from the heartland states 'upstream.' Federal, state and local programs that encourage responsible development should be developed/strengthened, with the goal of restoring and maintaining the high-quality waters and habitat, needed to sustain our fishery resources.

The fourth major area of emphasis that will be required to minimize success in estuary restoration will be to work to both significantly improve enforcement of existing laws aimed at conservation (wise use) of estuarine resources, and to strengthen legislation where needed.\1\ Many laws designed to protect or improve water quality in our rivers and receiving estuaries would go far toward achieving widescale estuarine restoration, if they were meaningfully enforced. It is imperative that the set of tasks that must be undertaken to accomplish this goal include development of a strong incentive program to encourage all participants to both want to follow existing laws and to have the means afforded for that to be possible. Innovative, creative programs will be required, and must be developed, to increase the funding support that will he needed to achieve this extremely important goal. They are within reach;\1\ this country is great, in large measure, because of people through our history who have contributed creative, constructive thinking in solving major problems. As previously mentioned, many impacts on estuaries from human activities originate upstream. States should enact/strengthen a freshwater wetlands protection statute, similar to those that are available in many coastal states for saltwater wetlands. This freshwater wetlands statute should provide incentives to private landowners to conserve these important habitats for water quality control. Such improvements will need to be accompanied by changes in the current "turfdom" of estuarine resource management in order to achieve a more integrated approach among, for example, fishery and water quality managers.\1\

Efforts are also needed to strengthen the success of the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA). Partnerships at state levels should work to create programs to provide the fiscal resources and technical assistance to local governments in preparing and implementing high-quality land use plans.\1\ Moreover, the design of land use plans should be altered so that these plans are required to consider the cumulative and secondary impacts of growth not only on development of the land itself, but also on water quality and water supply. For example, at present, land use plans developed under CAMA are not require to assess the carrying capacity of adjacent waters to assimilate the additional wastes that would be associated with expanded community growth and development. The greatest progress in restoring our estuaries will be accomplished when that connection can be realized in the increasingly urbanized coasts setting.


\1\ Coastal Futures Committee (1994) Charting a Course for our Coasts - - Report to the Governor. Final Report to recommend changes in coastal resource policy in North Carolina on the 20th anniversary of the Coastal Area Management Act. North Carolina Department of Environment, Health & Natural Resources, Raleigh, 106 pp. Note: Dr. Burkholder was the only scientist on the committee, and represented the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission.

\2\Miller, G.T. (1992, 1997) Living in the Environment. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont (CA).

\3\ Office of Technology Assessment (1987) Wastes in Marine Environments. U.S. Congress, OTA-0-334. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

\4\Kennish, M.J. (1994) Practical Handbook of Marine Science, 2nd edn. CRC Press, Boca Raton, LA,

\5\Postel, S. (1997) Last Oasis - Facing Water Scarcity. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY.

\6\Bryant, D. E. Rodenburg, T. Cox & D. Nielsen (1995) Coastlines at Risk: An Index of Potential Development-Related Threats to Coastal Ecosystems. World Resources Institute, Washington, District of Columbia.

Deichmann, U. (1996) A Review of Spatial Population Database Design and Modeling. National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis Technical Report 96-3 (March). Santa Barbara, California.

\7\ Burkholder, J.M. K.M. Mason & E.J. Glasgow Jr. (1992) Water-column nitrate enrichment promotes decline of eelgrass Zostera marina: evidence from seasonsal mesocosm experiments Marine Ecology Progress Series, vol 81, pp. 163-178.

Dennison, W.C., R.J. Orth, K.A . Moore, J.C Stevenson, V. Carter, S. Kollar, P.W. Bergstrom & R.A. Batiuk (1993) Assessing water quality with submerged aquatic vegetation. BioScience, vol. 43, pp. 86-94

\8\Sindermann, C.J. (1996) Ocean Pollution - Effects on Living Resources and Humans. CRC Press, Coca Baton, LA.

\9\Burkholder, J.M., H.J. Noga, C.W. Hobbs, H.B. Glasgow Jr. & S.A. Smith (1992) New "phantom" dinoflagellate is the causative agent of mayor estuarine fish kills. Nature, volume 358, pp. 407-410; and mature, vol. 359, p. 760.

\10\ Burkholder, J.M. (1997) Implications of harmful marine microalgae and heterotrophic dinoflagellates in management of sustainable fisheries. National Academy of Sciences special issue on sustainable marine fisheries. Ecological Applications Supplement, vol. 8, pp. S37-S62.

\11\Burkholder, J.M. &. H.B. Glasgow Jr. (1997) Pfiesteria piscicida and other Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates: Behavior, impacts, and environmental controls. Limnology & Oceanography, vol. 42, pp. 1052-1075

\11\Boesch, D.F. (ed.) (1997) The Cambridge Concensus - Forum on Land-Based Pollution and Toxic Dinoflagellates in Chesapeake Bay. University of Maryland, Cambridge.

\12\Glasgow, H.B. Jr., J.M. Burkholder, D.E. Schmechel, P.A. Tester & P.A. Rublee (1995) Insidious effects of a toxic dinoflagellate on fish survival and human health. Journal of Toxicology & Environmental Health. volume 46, pp. 101-122.

\13\Grattan, L.M., D. Oldach,. T.M. Perl, M H. Lowitt, D.L. Matuszak, C. Dickson, C. Parrott, R.C. Shoemaker, M.P. Wasserman, J.R. Hebel, P. Charache & Job. Moms Tr. (1998) Problems in learning and memory occur in persons with environmental exposure to waterways containing toxin-productng Pfiesteria or Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates. The Lancer (accepted).