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A wasting disease that kills rockfish and can cause a severe skin infection in humans has spread to nearly three-quarters of the rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, cradle of the mid-Atlantic's most popular game fish. ...The mycobacteriosis epidemic could carry profound implications for the rockfish, also known as striped bass. The fish fuel a $300 million industry in Maryland and Virginia, but because the bacteria kill slowly, effects on the stock are only now emerging.
The rockfish remains bay conservationists' only success story -- a species nearly wiped out, then revived by fishing limits. ...But as the number of rockfish surged, the fish remained in a body of water too polluted to support the level of life it once did. ..."We used to think that if you got hold of fishing, all your problems would be solved," said James H. Uphoff Jr., a biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "But now all these ecological problems crop up, and we don't understand them."
Indeed, nearly a decade after mycobacteriosis first appeared, scientists remain utterly baffled about its implications, including those for humans. ...In humans who touch the fish, the microbe can cause a skin infection known as fish handler's disease, which is not life-threatening but can lead to arthritis-like joint problems if untreated. ...Michele M. Monti, director of the Waterborne Hazards Control Program at the Virginia Department of Health, said the fish handler's bacterium can also lead to other problems, including swollen lymph glands or lung disease.
..."The fish are exposed to the bacteria right from the start. . . . It's ubiquitous," he found. "It can survive in water or sediment or mucus." ...An infected rockfish can appear outwardly healthy. But inside, the bacteria settle first in its spleen. The creature builds walls of scar tissue in fighting it, but the infection spreads to other organs. The rockfish loses weight, even as its insides swell, and it often develops sores. ...Most rockfish begin their lives in the rivers feeding the bay. When they are 3 to 6 years old, they begin their journeys to the Atlantic Ocean, where they range as far north as Canada. At spawning time, most return to their birthplace....In ideal conditions, rockfish can live up to 30 years... So far, Vogelbein's team has found 10 strains of the bacteria in diseased rockfish, including two so new that their effect on humans is unknown.
Chesapeake's rockfish overrun by disease