Rick Dove loves the Neuse. The cloudy river, two million years old, seems to possess a spiritual quality that he finds irresistible. The Neuse was named after the Neusiok Indians, who thrived along its southern banks before the English began exploring Pamlico Sound in 1585. By the mid-1700s, the Neusiok were nearly gone.
The Neuse is born outside Durham and runs in a southeasterly direction until it reaches New Bern, two hundred miles away, at the juncture of the Trent River. There the water goes brackish, then spreads out for several miles wide before crawling through a forty-mile tidal estuary that empties into Pamlico Sound. At roughly ten miles across, it ranks among the widest river mouths in the continental United States.
Rick always loved rivers. He grew up next to a little tributary of Bear Creek near Dundalk, Maryland—just five miles southeast of Baltimore. As kids, Rick and his buddies would splash around in the creek during the sweaty months of summer. But one afternoon in the 1940s, that dreamy world came to an end. Rick’s mother took her six-year-old by the hand and led him down to the water’s edge. She pointed to a new housing development built upstream. When those people flushed their toilets, she said, it went right into the creek.
“You can’t swim here anymore, Rick,” she sighed, kissing his forehead.
The six-year-old frowned at the prospect of swimless summers to come. Then his face lit up. “Don’t worry, Mom! It’s okay,” Rick said. “We’ll just go over there and tell them to stop!” Many years later, he would remember that day as his start as an environmentalist.
As Rick grew older, his maritime vistas expanded beyond polluted Bear Creek to Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore. His dad built warplanes for the Glen L. Martin Company (now Martin Marietta) and his mom ran a dry cleaning business. Rick and his dad were able to embark on many fishing trips to remote inlets of the sprawling bay.
Rick earned his law degree at age twenty-three from the University of Baltimore in 1963. But the Vietnam War was rumbling, half a world away. Rather than risk being drafted, Rick applied for the marines’ four-year officer program in Quantico, Virginia. He wanted to “take orders, and learn how to give a few,” he likes to say. Officer boot camp was sixteen weeks long and nearly half his class dropped out—but Rick held on and graduated as a second lieutenant.
In 1964, Rick married his childhood sweetheart, Joanne Rose Tezak, and, after he passed the Maryland bar, Rick and his bride were stationed at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina, where he worked as a judge advocate in a law office. Soon after that, Rick signed up as a career officer in the marines. He was then sent to a big naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, where he and his platoon guarded against demonstrators protesting U.S. nuclear ships docking in the harbor. Rick was grudgingly impressed by the passionate activists.
Rick did two tours of duty in the Vietnam War and took incoming missiles on his first night in-country. Eventually, he ended up working as a defense counsel in a supply depot called Red Beach, not too far from Denang. There he defended marines who had been court-martialed for murder, fragging, and rape.
By 1972, Rick was stateside again, working as a marine liaison to Congress during the final years of the war. He and Joanne lived in Washington, D.C., and adopted two children, Todd and Holly. In 1975, Rick transferred to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, fifteen miles southeast of New Bern, on a wide bend in the Neuse River.
The fishing, Rick quickly learned, was incredible. The Neuse feeds river water and nutrients into the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds estuarine system, a vast nursery for 90 percent of all commercial species caught in North Carolina. Its feeder streams and shady backwater creeks provide spawning areas for herring, shad, and striped bass. Much like salmon, these fish live as adults in the open sea but swim upriver when it comes time to spawn.
Rick became the staff judge advocate for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, and in 1983 the family settled into a Mediterranean-style home right on the Neuse, in the prosperous subdivision of Carolina Pines. Rick built a wooden deck and a good-size pier out on the water, and purchased his dreamboat: a twenty-three-foot riverboat with a 200 horsepower engine manufactured by Hydro-Step Corporation. Designed to carry extra weight, she was perfect for crabbing, when a full cargo could reach two thousand pounds or more.
Life could not have been sweeter. America was at peace, and the river was swollen with bass, flounder, crab, and shrimp. They were so bountiful, Rick couldn’t give them away to his neighbors. Now a colonel in the marines, he told Joanne that one day he would retire from the Corps and launch a fishing business right from his backyard. Rick loved the Neuse so much that when he was transferred to serve as a military judge at Camp Lejeune, fifty-five miles to the south, he chose the two-hour daily commute over moving off the river.
Nothing could keep Rick from the Neuse, not even when he began forgetting things after spending his days on the river in the fall of 1986. It wasn’t simple memory loss, like forgetting where you put your car keys. He couldn’t remember which courtroom he worked in, or find his way back to chambers from the law library. Rick was convinced he had a brain tumor. But doctors found nothing wrong with him. He took some time off to recuperate, and within three weeks, the problems abated and he returned to the bench.
At the same time, Rick began noticing that some of the menhaden in the Neuse were turning up dead, with open, bleeding lesions on their silvery flanks. It would be years before he understood the connection between his memory loss and the ghoulish fish kills.
In June 1987, Colonel Richard Dove turned in his retirement papers and walked out of Camp Lejeune’s main gate, leaving the Marine Corps behind. Rick could have waited five years for full retirement benefits. But all he wanted was to grab his son, Todd, jump in his boat, and go be a fisherman on the Neuse.
Rick and Todd rigged up the boat into an operable commercial fishing vessel. They bought a seventeen-foot fishing skiff that was ideal for crabbing and christened it the Little Dipper. Rick rented a store in nearby Havelock and opened a fish market, Todd’s Seafood. The catch was consistently generous and the customers voracious. Business boomed.
For two years, Rick lived in bliss. But in the autumn of 1989, he again noticed dying fish turning up in his own seafood catches. The lesions began appearing on menhaden, but quickly spread to other species.
Then the sores started to appear on people.
One day Todd pointed out to his dad a couple of puzzling red spots on his hands and lower leg. Rick didn’t think too much of it—until he found similar spots on his own forearm the next day. Within days, their wounds had grown into weepy open sores, and no antibiotic seemed to make them go away. Rick and Todd realized that anywhere they got wet, they got lesions. Whatever was killing the fish was now stalking them.
Then, in 1990, more than two million fish perished in the Neuse River from August through October. These are the months that the menhaden gather for their annual exodus to the Atlantic. Rick knew that the massive fish migration is nature’s way of exporting excess nutrients out of the Neuse River Basin. Throughout the year, young menhaden gorge themselves on tons of plant material that end up in creeks and streams feeding the river and estuary. In the late summer or early fall, a billion or more menhaden converge to swim en masse out to the ocean. Once there, they breed and then die, releasing stored-up nitrogen and phosphorus into the open waters. But when millions of fish instead die prematurely in the Neuse, those excess nutrients remain where they are.
Rick began to hear other fishermen around New Bern speaking of odd experiences on the water. Their problems went beyond skin sores. Some suffered from memory loss and worse. Some guys were passing out in their boats, then drifting for miles unanchored and unconscious. When they finally came to, they did not recognize their surroundings and could not remember where they had launched their boats. Once ashore, they had no idea where they’d parked their vehicles. The hapless fishermen would wander aimlessly around, trying to sort through a cloud of confusion to find their way home.
Rick realized that his own memory troubles had returned. He was missing business appointments. It was out of character for a disciplined marine.
What, then, was happening to the Neuse? Rick began reading every book he could find on the history of the Neuse River, Pamlico Sound, and fishing along the Carolina coast. He learned that fish kills had occurred for centuries. When colder seawater creeps in under warmer river water, it can create a condition called a salt wedge, which can turn water into a hypoxic (low oxygen) or anoxic (zero oxygen) death trap for fish.
Salt wedges can kill a few thousand fish at a time. But not millions. And the history books said nothing about fish with gaping sores in their sides. Rick sailed his boat up and down the river, visiting with old-timers—some whose families had settled here in the 1700s—to probe their recollections. No one had ever heard of anything like these fills kills.
By 1990, Rick and his family closed Todd’s Seafood and reluctantly gave up eating local fish. In 1991, he began downsizing the fishing operation, save for some six hundred crabbing pots he kept going. It wasn’t much, but it brought in some income. Eventually, Rick stopped doing that, too. “If I won’t eat it myself, how the hell can I sell it wholesale?” Rick told friends. “My conscience won’t let me do this anymore.” The Little Dipper and other small craft were sold off.
Todd was relieved to be off the water. By now, red sores—large, pus filled, and painful—covered parts of his body. The sores even started appearing on his face. Rick realized he was trying to hold on to a boyhood dream of being a fisherman, but that dream was becoming nightmarish. It was time to stop. “It’s just no fun anymore,” he told Joanne one night at dinner. “It’s not like it was a few years ago. When the fish are sick, and you and your son are getting sick, well, it’s just too damn depressing.”
In the summer of 1991, Rick quit his life on the river and returned to law, opening a small firm specializing in criminal defense for military personnel charged with everything from rape to murder to desertion. Now off the boat and in a suit, Rick was back in the same military courtroom at Camp Lejeune where he himself had been a judge. It was depressing to be there, arguing cases before former colleagues, but pining for the river—the river as it was before the fish started dying.
With more time spent on dry land, though, Rick could also linger in the law library, searching for the answer to what was killing the river. In the summer of 1992, he was reviewing the latest issue of the journal Nature when he came across a published letter from researchers at North Carolina State University, Raleigh. It was titled “New ‘Phantom’ Dinoflagellate Is the Causative Agent of Major Estuarine Fish Kills.”
Rick wondered if this phantom protozoan might be connected to the massacre on the Neuse. He read on: “A worldwide increase in toxic phytoplankton blooms over the past twenty years has coincided with increasing reports of fish diseases and deaths of unknown cause. Among estuaries that have been repeatedly associated with unexplained fish kills on the western Atlantic Coast are the Pamlico and Neuse Estuaries.”
Suspect identified, Rick thought.
The term “dinoflagellates” describes a large group of common plankton with plantlike features, including the ability to photosynthesize. But they can also take on animal-like characteristics, including the ability to move around at will. The protozoa have flagella, or whiplike tails, for locomotion and steering, and typically move around in a distinctive whirling fashion (dinos is Greek for “whirling”).
The authors went on to describe a certain type of toxic one-cell organism with “phantomlike” behaviors that kill huge numbers of fish in the estuaries. The creature can lie dormant in a cystlike state for extended periods on river bottoms, until it detects the presence of live fish. That triggers the alga to break free from its cyst form and move toward its prey, releasing an extremely potent toxin that stuns them. In laboratories at North Carolina State, the removal of live fish from tanks was followed by “rapid algal encystment and dormancy,” the letter said. When new fish were put back in, the cycle of death started anew.
“This dinoflagellate was abundant in the water during major fish kills in local estuaries, but only while fish were dying; within several hours of death where carcasses were still present, the flagellated vegetative algal population had encysted and settled back to the sediments,” the authors wrote. The toxin produced by the phantom plankton was “highly lethal” to finfish and shellfish in the laboratory. But this vampire alga was interested only in live fish.
The Neuse River Estuary—its salty, murky water overloaded with phosphorus and nitrogen—was the ideal habitat for these particular dinoflagellates. The farms, factories, and cities upstream, Rick realized, were feeding a frenzy of fish kills down toward the river’s mouth. “Given its broad temperature and salinity tolerance, and its stimulation by phosphate enrichment, this toxic phytoplankter may be a widespread but undetected source of fish mortality in nutrient-enriched estuaries,” the authors concluded.1
Soon, news of the dinoflagellate went mainstream. Local papers reported that the creature in question had been given two different names—one scientific and one colloquial. Science’s name was Pfiesteria (fist-AIR-ee-ah) piscicida (pis-ki-SEED-ah). The genus name came from a late friend of the researchers, Dr. Lois Pfiester, who pioneered studies into the sexual habits and life cycles of dinoflagellates. Piscicida is Latin for “fish killer.”
The vernacular term was much easier to remember. The press called it “the cell from hell.”
Happily for Rick Dove, his days as a private attorney defending GIs were short-lived. One chilly afternoon in December 1992, he drove home from work, opened a beer, and picked up the paper. What he saw on the front page would change his life forever.
A local conservation group, the Neuse River Foundation, had received a small grant to hire a “Riverkeeper” for the Neuse. It was part of the fledgling Riverkeeper movement started in the 1980s on New York’s Hudson River. The term was coined in medieval England to describe men who policed common fishing grounds against poaching. The foundation was seeking an individual to patrol the waterways of the Neuse River Basin, searching for illegal discharges from farms, factories, and towns.
“Man, this is the job I want,” Rick said to Joanne. He smiled, kissed her forehead, handed her the paper, and went off to his office to bang out a letter of application. He knew there would be stiff competition, but he felt that he’d been born to do this work. In March, the call came in and, on April 1, Rick started his dream job. He still needed to wrap up a few legal cases, but for now, he was back on the water.
Former law colleagues were dismissive. What can one individual do on the water by himself? They called him Don Quixote of the River. Rick put up with the ribbing. And he took comfort in knowing that while these guys were getting rich defending polluters, he would be making their clients’ lives hell.
“I’m going to find out who did this to our river,” Rick vowed to his family at dinner, the night before his first day as Riverkeeper. “I’m going to get even. I’m going to make the people who are responsible pay for what they did to the water and to us.”
It didn’t take long for Rick to rig his vessel into an efficient eco-patrol boat. An old friend who worked at the North Carolina Division of Environmental Management lent him a kit to facilitate onboard water testing (for turbidity, salinity, dissolved oxygen, etc.). Rick added casting nets and crab pots for collecting marine samples, and bought a video camera. He also fixed lights to the boat to illuminate it “like a Christmas tree” during night missions.
Rick designed his own “uniform,” too—a khaki short-sleeved shirt made of thick cotton, with epaulets on the shoulders. He had the words NEUSE RIVERKEEPER stitched in red on the pocket, and his name stitched on the sleeve. He also wore brown field boots, an orange life vest, and a navy blue cap with the words NEUSE RIVERKEEPER printed in white. “I’ve got to have people recognize me for who I am and what I am doing,” he explained to Joanne. “When I go to hearings and other events, the media will know who I am, because of my clothes. This outfit tells a story.” Soon enough, Rick would become well known around New Bern for his Riverkeeper uniform.
The words NEUSE RIVERKEEPER were also painted in dark blue on each side of his boat’s bow. His wife suggested the boat’s name—Lonesome Dove—as a gentle dig at his long, obsessive solo river patrols that left her home alone. But Rick prefers to call his boat the Lonesome D.
The entire operation had an annual budget of just twenty-five thousand dollars—and that had to cover fuel, maintenance, lab testing, equipment, photography, and Rick’s salary. By the time expenses were paid, there was no salary left. So he dipped into his own pockets—a military pension that kept him comfortable—to keep the project afloat.
Rick was overjoyed to be back on the Neuse. He spent the first weeks inspecting known “point sources” of pollution, such as municipal waste treatment plants and certain factories. He even lectured his own neighbors about their manicured suburban lawns. The nutrients they used to keep them so lush and green mostly ended up running into the water, causing serious algal blooms—some so severe that boats belonging to the affluent were being locked into their slips by the thick green mass.
About a week after starting his new job, Rick called a young college professor from North Carolina State University in Raleigh: JoAnn Burkholder, a professor of environmental science. He had heard that she was doing research on the fish kills, and asked if she would meet with him. Burkholder holds a doctorate in botanical limnology, the study of inland water ecosystems. More important, she had coauthored the letter Rick saw in Nature, and she was a codiscoverer of Pfiesteria piscicida, the “cell from hell.”
JoAnn had read about Rick’s appointment as Riverkeeper in the New Bern Sun Journal. He asked her if she would tell him more about the fish kills. She wanted to test water conditions, especially for nutrients, and collect samples to test for toxic Pfiesteria. The two arranged to meet at the restaurant in the Havelock Holiday Inn, and they ended up glued to their corner table for three hours and two pots of watery coffee. Rick was spellbound by JoAnn’s intelligence and analytical drive.
JoAnn is the type of no-nonsense scientist who strikes fear in polluters who come within view of her academic crosshairs. Tall and sturdy with shoulder-length, wavy dark hair and pale blue eyes, JoAnn was raised in northern Illinois, with the modesty and understatement that attend a Midwestern up-bringing. In short, the young aquatic botanist is both likable and seriously credible.
“We first discovered it in the Pamlico River during a major kill of juvenile menhaden, and have also tracked it to the Neuse River during some fish kills there,” she said of Pfiesteria. “This is a very unusual microbe. I’ve never seen anything like it. It changes into several very distinct forms across its life. It might be dormant as an inert cyst. Or it might assume various active forms. It usually eats other organisms, from microalgae to fish, but sometimes it can use photosynthesis for nutrition, like a plant. And it can reproduce rapidly, but its toxin allows it to kill fish in fairly small cell numbers, only a few hundred to several thousand cells per milliliter.”
While she studied Pfiesteria, JoAnn discovered that using bleach to clean lab tanks where the dinoflagellate had killed fish was not enough to kill Pfiesteria, which formed protective coverings and lay dormant in cyst form. When JoAnn refilled the tanks with live fish, they would begin their sickening dance of death, sometimes within a few minutes. In other tanks, with smaller numbers of the dinoflagellates and therefore less toxin, the fish died more slowly, though they sometimes became covered with hideous red sores.
“I know that sign all too well,” Rick said.
JoAnn explained, “The toxin or toxins can destroy the fish skin, and also apparently can affect the immune system and nervous system.” Rick scribbled notes furiously as she went on to explain how the organism moves in to eat blood and flesh from the doomed fish’s cells.
“Yep,” Rick said, “And I know what comes next. Millions of dead fish washing up on shorelines and rich people’s beaches, so many rotten fish you can’t bulldoze them away.”
“But here is where it gets even stranger,” JoAnn said. “By the time all the fish are washing up dead, often with sores, nearly all traces of the cellular organisms that killed them have disappeared.” After their feeding frenzy, the cells almost instantly leave the water by attaching to fish tissue or settling back into the riverbed, leaving little trace behind and making them exceedingly difficult to track.
Rick thought about this diabolical life cycle. Then he thought about the scores of people boating, fishing, and swimming in the Neuse at that very moment. “So, if it does that to fish, what does it do to people?” he asked. “Is this stuff dangerous to humans?”
“We think so, but we need more research. We do believe it may cause sores on humans as it does on fish,” JoAnn said.
Rick got the shivers thinking about the “cell from hell” and its implications—for fish, for people, for the river. Not to mention for tourism and sportfishing. And there were YMCA camps and other summer retreats for kids all along the estuary. Would that all come to a halt? It was a chamber of commerce nightmare. How to convince people to visit, when the Neuse was infested with a one-cell vampire?
“My God,” Rick said, “it’s one thing to have people swimming in polluted waters and getting sick. But exposing them to a thing that’s after their blood? It’s worse than Jaws. A shark is big and real. A shark you can see.” Rick stirred his coffee for a moment in silence. “I’ve lived here since the seventies and never seen anything like it. What’s changed?”
“We are looking at nutrient pollution, like the excessive nutrients that come from sewage treatment plants and hog farms. But we’re not sure yet. We need to study it further,” JoAnn said.
A few days later, Rick made the three-hour drive to Raleigh. JoAnn showed him the protocols on testing river water for Pfiesteria—how to take the algal samples, how to package and document them, where to ship them.
Rick also met JoAnn’s trusted colleague Howard Glasgow, who worked at the same North Carolina State University lab. Howard explained how the stretch of river where Rick lived lay right in the heart of the “kill zone”—where water was still and murky, so algal blooms were more likely.
Howard helped Rick borrow an instrument called a Hydrolab—an expensive piece of scientific machinery—for the Lonesome Dove. Its electronic probe was dropped in the water and programmed to test for salinity, temperature, oxygen, pH, and conductivity. Testing for oxygen levels was crucial—they were an omen of murderous things to come. High readings during the daytime, followed by very low levels at night, usually meant the presence or imminence of a large algal bloom. This would at least allow Rick time to prepare for a new emergency round of studying and testing.
Excerpted from Animal Factory by David Kirby.
Copyright © 2010 by David Kirby.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.