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Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct;109 Suppl 5:715-30.

Field ecology of toxic Pfiesteria complex species and a conservative analysis of their role in estuarine fish kills.

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  • 1Center for Applied Aquatic Ecology (CAAE), North Carolina State University, Raleigh 27606, USA.


Within the past decade, toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks have been documented in poorly flushed, eutrophic areas of the largest and second largest estuaries on the U.S. mainland. Here we summarize a decadal field effort in fish kill assessment, encompassing kills related to Pfiesteria (49 major kills in North Carolina estuaries since 1991 and 4 in Maryland estuaries in 1997) and to other factors such as low oxygen stress (79 major fish kills in North Carolina estuaries). The laboratory and field data considered in developing our protocols are described, including toxic Pfiesteria behavior, environmental conditions conducive to toxic Pfiesteria activity, and impacts of toxic clonal Pfiesteria on fish health. We outline the steps of the standardized fish bioassay procedure that has been used since 1991 to diagnose whether actively toxic Pfiesteria was present during estuarine fish kills. Detailed data are given for a 1998 toxic Pfiesteria outbreak in the Neuse Estuary in North Carolina to illustrate of the full suite of diagnostic steps completed. We demonstrate that our conservative approach in implicating toxic Pfiesteria involvement in fish kills has biased in favor of causes other than Pfiesteria. Data are summarized from experiments that have shown stimulation of toxic Pfiesteria strains by nutrient (N, P) enrichment, supporting field observations of highest abundance of toxic strains in eutrophic estuaries. On the basis of a decade of research on toxic Pfiesteria, we present a conceptual model of the seasonal dynamics of toxic strains as affected by changing food resources and weather patterns. We also recommend protocols and research approaches that will strengthen the science of fish kill assessment related to Pfiesteria and/or other causative factors.

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